Posted by: Minna Aslama Horowitz | December 20, 2012

Online participation with video: Communities in Youtube

Final Paper Project by Petja Nykanen: See the video here.

Screen shot 2012-12-20 at 4.11.32 PM  Screen shot 2012-12-20 at 4.11.24 PM




By: Christopher Denholm, Julian Hans, Svitlana Kisilova, Yannick Ilunga & Banafsheh Ranji

2012-09-06-19-03-29.jpgThe idea and ideal of a community has traditionally been seen as opposed to society (e.g., Delanty 2010, 18-36). It has represented localized, voluntary, even emotionally bound connections that are highly symbolic and communicative, while societies have presented the faceless structure and order created by rationality (op cit.). As some critics of the idea/l have argued, the concept of community has been used to keep the individual tied to common values, even to mass inertia.

At the same time, others note that in our individualized societies, communities are more in demand than ever before. (Ohler 2011). Block argues that “the need to create belonging grows out of the isolated nature of our lives, our institutions, and our communities” (Block 2009). This position is reaffirmed by Wellman and Gulia: “[C]ompanionship, emotional support, services and a sense of belonging are abundant in cyberspace” (Wellman & Gulia 1999).

Etzioni describes two central elements to the formation of a community: “a web of affect-laden relationships among a group of individuals” and “a measure of commitment to a set of shared values, norms, and meanings, and a shared history and identity, to a particular culture” (Etzioni 1993). He imagines communities as non-exclusive entities insofar as an individual can belong to more one.

Zygmunt Bauman states that even the word ‘community’ conveys a sense of warmth and likens it to “a roof under which we shelter in heavy rain” (Bauman 2001, 1). However, Bauman questions whether the ideology of community is attainable and suggests that it is a paradise lost that “we would dearly wish to inhabit and which we hope to repossess” (Bauman 2001, 3).

The concepts of participation and interaction are central to the understanding of community and have been identified as a “reinforcing tie” in their establishment (Berry 1993). However, Bruns notes that there are varying degrees of participation in the “online, networked, information economy”, which can be identified as “productive” or “consumptive” (Bruns 2008). Dahlgren similarly concludes that the definition of interaction can be extremely broad and it has “its sites and spaces, its discursive practices, its psychocultural aspects”, which leads to them possessing a “fluid, sprawling quality” (Dahlgren 2005, 149).

According to Rheingold (2000), one of the few things that enthusiastic members of virtual communities in Japan, England, France, and the United States all agree on is that expanding their circle of friends is one of the most important advantages of computer conferencing (Rheingold 2000, 11). This, for the fact that on the Internet the concepts of time and space have been rethought.

For the past century, the mass media have been recognized as one of the key creators of ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson 1983) in terms of national identity. Jankowski (2006) discusses about relationship between community and media and the effects of mass media, especially the Internet on society and community. For instance, he refers to some approaches about the impact of radio, radio have been considered as a medium that brings culture to the living rooms or have been used as a propaganda tool. In term of Internet and new socially constructed media, it has been claimed that participation in interactive forms of communication such as virtual communities, has led to improvement of equality in society (Jankowski 2006). Although we do not know everyone participating in that community, we know the shared responsibilities, rights, as well as values.

Today, mass media has to a great extent become micro media. We all consume as well as create and distribute content, and connect with others through digital networks. The participatory nature of most digital media has unleashed the desire to create and share in us. And that desire, it has been suggested, is the fuel for digital communities (Shirky 2010).

What can be seen as common thread between Anderson’s ‘imagined communities’ and contemporary digital communities is the fact that, in both cases, the members will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them (Anderson 1983, 6). This appears clear for online communities in particular, where a real physical co-presence is absent. Even so, the members see themselves as part of group that shares similar visions, values and behaviors.

In the time when digital communication become an essential part of our life, scholars still arguing about the definition of communities that we create in cyberspace. Do people try to supersede absence of real-life community by online ones?  Analyzing vast amount of theories of digital communities we could definitely state that digital communities are communities which people need in their life. Interaction of digital technologies and people’s desire to find someone with the same interests, goals, dreams and experience, leads to emergence of different digital communities. Digital communities have a lot of advantages.

For example, there are no time and space limits. As Muller suggested, “in this era of virtually shrinking distances associated with geographical locations, it has become possible to forge connections with individuals that would not traditionally lie within the possible scope of connection.” (Muller 2011, 269-270). Of course, not all kinds of interactions between people in the online world cause the emergence of community. Nonetheless, Rheingold believe that “virtual communities might be real communities, they might be pseudocommunities, or they might be something entirely new in the realm of social contacts, but they are in part a response to the hunger for community that has followed the disintegration of traditional communities around the world” (Rheingold 1993, 62).

The digital communities also can help “to solve a real-world problem” in the digital social media world (cf. Shirky 2010, 41). That means that digital tools can coordinate human-contact and real-world activity. Examples for this idea are car sharing via the Internet and dating platforms. For acts like this, communication within the social media deals as the coordination of people, seeking the same good (a car to drive with, a partner to live with…). Through the Internet, the world gets smaller and smaller and the community still deals “as a global society on a local basis” (König 1968), but nowadays it does not matter it your location is rural or in a town, small or big: what counts is the connection to other people – your community. Online or/and offline.

The notion of community has been a dynamic notion, and there is not much agreement on the term due to the changes over time (Preece, Krichmar & Abras, 2003). According to Wellman, Boas and Chen (2002) the notion of community has started to change since the industrial revolution and as a result of advent of technology. The changes continued by the widespread usage of Internet, during the time the direction of change has been from local to global- based (Wellman, Boas & Chen 2002). Considerably, the development of Web 2.0 in 1990s has facilitated people who have common interests to interact with each other and shape online community. Emerging the new technologies and telecommunication devices, the notion of community lost its traditional meaning by providing the opportunity of communication regardless of distance and bringing together dispersed people (Preece & Krichmar 2005).
This essay seeks to explore how communities are impacted, and transformed, in our rapidly emerging digital age. Is the concept of community lost in virtual worlds, or enhanced by digital platforms? And, since digital communications tend to blur, even disregard, old borders of location as well as demographics, what is the impact of digital media in local, national, and global communities?

What Is a Digital Community?

It has been claimed that the methods we use computer technologies to create communities bears “remarkable similarities to the world of face-to-face communication” (Feenberg & Bakardjieva 2004). Both allow us to engage in relationships with others that contribute to our “personal development”. Ohler  (2011, 41) defines digital communities as: “[T]he groups to which we belong that are primarily sustained through electronic rather than geographic proximity”.
Another important differentiation Ohler identifies is that we make a conscious choice to join digital communities, rather than being an inherent part of a community due to “geographic default” (op cit.). Song recognises that traditionally there have been three main variables connected to study of communities within sociology: place, number of ties and the quality of interaction. She concludes that because of mankind’s lengthy association with these variables, “it is not surprising that interest in the Internet has emphasised its capacity to redefine community from its conventional dimensions of geographic physical space and face-to-face communication to bodiless, spaceless, and computer-mediated interactions” (Song 2009, 24).

Feenberg and Bakardjieva highlights the connection between the ideals of community and traditional themes in its philosophy, therefore they conclude that the debate surround digital communities is “fraught with political significance” (Feenberg & Bakardjieva 2004, 2).

It is widely assumed that digital community is a new type of community that operates on different basis than traditional community. Before defining digital community it would be helpful to clarify what is ‘community’ in more traditional sense. According to Delanty (2010) there are several major definitions of community: 1) Community as traditional cultural values in theory of Tönnies; 2) Durkheimian understanding of community as specific modern entity and “a form of moral individualism”; 3) symbolic meaning of communities in Turner and Cohen’s theories, where communities have a power to create links between members and define its boundaries. Therefore, community is fluid notion that changing along with society. First, community was considered as a tradition, then definition was changed by concept of modernity, and finally, obtained a symbolic character and nature. Despite the variety of traditions that defines community it always has been something that unites people on the basis of either tradition or morality, or symbolic meaning. Nonetheless, community is always has been specific forms of belonging.

But what exactly means “belonging” in that case? As Tönnies says, community is expressed in rural village life. The actual process of living here – rooted in natural locality – means being a community (Delanty 2010). Thinking about a village, you might think of coexistence, interaction, both in a personal way. The “Global Village” (first mentioned by Marshall McLuhan in 1962 perhaps was the basic concept of the contemporary digital communities. The center of the village McLuhan defined as “everywhere”. So it might be in “New York’s Times Square Office Suite” or “in the middle of nowhere” (McLuhan 1962). Radio and television began to spread their messages everywhere. Therefore, the condition for the center was only a TV or radio. What might this condition be nowadays?

Consequently, if we witness changes in notion of community and it transfer to another space (virtual space), what digital, or online, or virtual community is? How does it looks like? Virtual communities emerged from a surprising intersection of humanity and technology (Rheingold 1993, 57). One of the most popular definitions of virtual communities was given by Rheingold: “Virtual communities are cultural aggregations that emerge when enough people bump into each other often enough in cyberspaces. A virtual community is a group of people who may or may not meet one another face-to-face, and who exchange words and ideas through the mediation of computer bulletin boards and networks” (op cit., 57-58).

Various literatures have defined digital communities in a quite similar way. A group of dispersed people, who might be more than millions and are supported by software environment. Online communities are shaped around a purpose such as bringing together an ethnic group regardless of their physical distance or commodity consumption (Wilson & Peterson 2002; Preece, Krichmar & Abras 2003). Online communities might have various religious, political or social effects in a national, international or local scale (Preece, Krichmar & Abras, 2003). Gotved argues ‘ the communities on the Internet are communities of shared interests, which sometimes evolves into something more, for example, ideas of mediated proximity and the aforementioned belonging and scope’ (Gotved 2002, 406).

Communities in cyberspace emerged because people need that. The distinctive feature of digital communities is voluntary participation, because it is up to you whether to join community and participate or not. In 1968 Licklider and Taylor already define very crucial moment in digital community definition: “In most fields they will consist of geographically separated members, sometimes grouped in small clusters and sometimes working individually. They will be communities not of common location, but of common interest…” (in Rheingold 1993, 65).

Rheingold (2000) has discussed one of the key differences between the traditional concept of community and the online one. In the traditional community, we search through our pool of neighbors and professional colleagues, acquaintances and acquaintances of acquaintances, in order to find people who share our values and interests. In a virtual community we can go directly to the place where our favorite subjects are being discussed, then get acquainted with the people who share our passions or who use words in a way we find attractive (Rheingold 2000, 11). Examples of this kind of virtual environment, in which common interests and specific language are used, are, forum dedicated to Japanese mangas and animes and, social networking service originally intended as a virtual space for musicians and music fan.

In Cognitive Surplus Shirky (2010) discusses participation, emphasizing the role of motivation, or what he also refers to as stimulus, within communities. The topic had been discussed already in the 1970s in the context of theories of human motivation. During those years it was claimed that adding any new reward to an existing activity would make people do more of it (op cit., 73). However, these studies made little distinction among different kinds of motivation (op cit.). As Shirky (op cit.) notices, money has been the most general-purpose motivator available. It is important, though not to generalize. In numerous communities what prevails is a passion, a motivation a ‘love over gold’ (op cit.), rather than economic interests.

Even though Shirky’s ideas of ‘stimulus and love over gold’ seems legit, other authors, such as Norris (in Howard & Jones, 2004), have noticed that commitments to any particular online group can often be shallow and transient when another group is but a mouse click away (op cit., 33).

However, there are scholars who argue that ‘virtual community’ is an incorrect notion and the emphasis should be made on ‘virtual’ rather than ‘community’ component (Shenk 1997; Fernback and Thompson 1995; Weinreich 1997). For instance, Weinreich rejects the existence of virtual communities because group-CMC (computer mediated communication) discussions cannot possibly meet his definition of community what is “a collective of kinship networks which share a common geographic territory, a common history, and a shared value system, usually rooted in a common religion” (in Jones 1997).
What Defines a Location in the Digital Realm?

Considering the definitions of an online community, the notion of location or space seems more abstract in these communities in comparison to offline communities. Geographically dispersed people create a common place in cyberspace around their interests, the shared interests create borders in cyberspace (Gotved, 2002).  According to Gotved (2003) in cyberspace certain people belong to a shared place, and ‘various locations are imagined through their address as a “there” in the vast online realm’ (Gotved, 2002, 406). Gotved also argues that ‘the visible shared space benefits the individual’s sense of community—the visibility of others and the visibility of oneself interacting in the space are crucial factors in online community life’ (Gotved, 2002, 408). Therefore, shared places that are created around common interest, goal or other subjective terms may be considered as factors that create locations of online communities. In terms of some online communities such as hacktivism, might seems that the visibility of them in offline world may lead to identification of a these communities by their members. However, they are still communities of dispersed people who get together and organize event via online communities.

Ohler (2010) observes online community as an ‘evolution’ of the traditional process of community. The author defines the first phase as solidary community, a type of community that took place during the preindustrial period. The word solidary is defined as “characterized by or involving community responsibilities and interests”. What followed, during the industrial phase, was the neighborhoods community. As people migrated from the fields to the cities to work in factories during the industrial revolution, solidary community began to fizzle out. Subsequently, came the third kind of community: personal networks. With the advent of modern transportation and communication technology, each of us began to build our own personal communities based on our personal networks (Ohler 2010, 37-38).

Nowadays, we are facing a new type of communities: the digital ones. Ohler defines them as groups to which  we belong that are primarily sustained through electronic rather than geographic proximity. They are highly adaptable in that they can serve as extensions of local community, solely as global communities whose members will  never share a common geography, or a combination of the two. Of primary importance is that people gather in digital communities by choice rather than due to geographic default. They are driven to do so largely by common needs and curiosities, from sharing common interest in someone’s YouTube channel, to enrollment in an online course, to engaging in a blog-based educational project to study international issues (Ohler 2010, 41).

Even though it appears that the geographical location is not relevant in the digital realm, there are ways to track down a virtual environment into a geo-political context, within ‘tangible’ borders. A world wide web address that ends with .fi, for example, can be connected in some way to Finland. Even though this is not a rule, and many sites contain ‘international identifications’ such as .com and .net, ‘national domains’ are used in the cases of government and administration websites (the Italian Parliament’s url is, the French one is and so forth).

If 20 years ago people still separated and distinguished their virtual and real life, now online is our life. We interact with people, searching for information, reading news, work and study in online regime. Nowadays, anyone who has access to the Internet and can be ‘online’ is in the place where digital community lives. Almost in all definitions of digital community such determinants of traditional communities as local time and geographic location is neglected.  Nevertheless, Muller (2011, 270) argued that excluding physical reality, we ignore cases when online reality “translating into real-world permutations and manifesting as an influencing factor in shaping physical reality.” In the example of the YouTube-based ‘It Gets Better’ project she described how primary online community caused some changes in offline world.

‘It Gets Better’ is a very good example of how “virtual communities [are] inseparably linked to physical reality and social construction” (Muller 2011, 270). Although not able to connect directly with every troubled youth, the videos by thousands of people could provide a point of support and positive reference for the confused and desperate kids.

But still it is very difficult to define the actual “location” in the digital realm. And it gets even more difficult with every new device, allowing us to connect to the Internet. With the Internet we can be on several locations at the very same time: you can write an essay in Helsinki while you are in the living room of a friend in New York via Skype and you can read papers on your topic from the library of the University of Bejing. We looking at the screen, we are watching movies, watching videos but do we “watch the Internet”? No, we are IN the Internet.

So maybe the location in the digital realm is more an environment or a public sphere than an actual location? As Law and Smith argue, “informal networks of public opinion formation have always been important elements in shaping the development of the public sphere” (Law & Smith 2006). Maybe Twitter or blogs are the digital location of the physically existing “Speaker’s Corner” in London’s Hyde Park?

According to Jones, to define virtual communities a distinction between communities themselves and cyberspace within which they operate (virtual settlement) need to be made (Jones 1997). A virtual settlement requires having (1) a minimum level of interactivity; (2) a variety of communicators; (3) a minimum level of sustained membership; and (4) a virtual common-public-space where a significant portion of interactive group-CMCs occur (op cit.). Jones concluded that, “the existence of a virtual settlement demonstrates the existence of an associated virtual community” (op cit.). Thus, identification of virtual settlement could help to define boundaries of virtual communities.  Yet, it not totally defines these boundaries.

The definition of a location in the digital world is further confused by the language that we use. Online destinations and communities are often referred to as ‘places’ and the term ‘cyberspace’ instantly conjures a physical element. However, Song (2009, 25) argues that although these queries are valid and help us to understand what is “real” or “virtual”, essentially these question are asked “without any serious attempt to fully understand online communities as a socially and culturally embedded phenomenon”.
Digital Meets Local

Massey argues that phenomenon of time-space compression actualize the question of “place and a sense of place” what directly leads us to the notion of locality in digital age. “Time-space compression refers to movement and communication across space, to the geographical stretching-out of social relations, and to our experience of all this” (Massey 1994, 2). Author believes that local communities are broken nowadays. He poses the main question “when you can go abroad and find the same shops, the same music as at home, or eat your favorite foreign-holiday food at a restaurant down the road – and when everyone has a different experience of all this – how then do we think about ‘locality’?” (Massey 1994, 4). In such situation people look for a “bit of peace and quiet” and stable place in changing world, where they can find fixity and security for their identity (Massey 1994, 4).  As Bauman wrote, community is always “a cozy and comfortable place” (Bauman 2001, 1). Thus, local community could be something that helps people to feel themselves secure and assist them in self-identification.
The Internet has removed the obstacles and restrictions on mobilization of citizens, people now have the choice to go beyond the local or national borders through digital media (Norris 2002). Nevertheless, everyday life predominantly needs local junction (Ishida 2000). Citizens need local communication in order to survive in the local space that they physically live. For instance, residents need local information, news and advertisement. Digital cities are the good examples of online communities based on local area (Jankowski 2006; Ishida 2000). Digital cities provide a platform for citizens to interact, for instance, communication between the municipal council and citizens was the reason for launching digital city of Amsterdam (Ishida 2000). Moreover, Digital cities offer local information, news, entertainment and local advertisements. According to Norris (2002) bridging and bonding are two functions of online communities, Bridging is defined as “widening contact with people from diverse social background” (Norris 2002, 7).Therefore, considering the function of digital communities in a local  arena and the definition of Norris, it may be claimed that digital media could play the role of bridge among people regardless of considering if they have common interests or similar beliefs.

An example for bridging might be the online virtual world Second Life. As Lessig (20writes, this platform began “with big blue oceans and beautiful green fields”. But then people started to create objects in there, they built “bridges” in both literal and metaphorical sense. By that “they have produced an extraordinarily rich environment that attracts people to Second Life” (op. cit.). But you can also build a bridge between the virtual and the real world. The Internet offers endless possibilities in order to “solve a real-world problem in the digital social media world” (Shirky 2010: 41). Shirky mentioned the online carpooling as one example and there are many others.

Another example would be Tesco, a British multinational grocery brand. Tesco wanted to be the number one grocery merchandise in South Korea but it has much less stores than its competitor and number one E-Mart. But how could they become bigger without increasing the number of stores? This “real-world problem” was solved with a digital solution and could even solve the people’s problem of being timeless: Tesco created virtual stores to blend in the people’s everyday life. Although virtual, the displays looked the same as in actual stores – and were arranged subway stations were all the employers had to wait in. Only one thing was different: they use their smartphones to shop. By scanning the QR-code the product automatically lands in the cart and will be delivered home. So the people can visit Tesco wherever they are and change their waiting time to actual used shopping time. As a result, the online sales rose by 130 % within two years (cf.

The virtual space is full of examples of digital meeting the local. Let’s think, for instance, at communities of players discussing videogames, whose gameplay scenario is set in real geographical locations (even though the real name of the location may be changed) such as New York City. In the cases of war, action and race games in particular, the digital actually seems to be meeting the local: the attention to detail and the way the real environment has been reproduced to the virtual game readdresses the player to the actual offline geographic location.

Another example of ‘digital meeting local’ is In this environment, people who have an idea that they would like to put into action seek for person looking for pledging (as in financing) their projects. Often, the digital post uploaded on kickstarter have a strong reference to an actual offline location, such as in the case of Save CinemaSalem, a project that aims at building additional screens to the Cinema Salem in Salem, Massachusetts.

Even the use of Twitter in crisis communication can be considered an example of digital meeting local. Bruns and Burgess (2011) describe the use of the social media Twitter for journalistic purposes as follows: “Twitter is used for the first-hand reporting of events as they occur. Such live tweeting activities now include not only the reporting of events by actual eyewitnesses on the ground, but also the second-hand live discussion of unfolding events as they are covered by other media” (Bruns and Burgess 2011, 2).

During difficult times, especially while being challenged by natural disasters such as tsunami and earthquakes, it appears that people create what can be referred to as ‘ad hoc’ digital national communities. Axel Bruns et al. (2012) have observed how these communities took shape during the 2011 floods in Australia. In #qldfloods and @QPSMedia: Crisis Communication on Twitter in the 2011 South East Queensland Floods Bruns et al. (2012) analyzed the conversation that took place around the hashtag #qldfloods on the tweeting social media.

As it happened more recently in the case of hurricane Sandy, people tweeted, shared linked and posted pictures related to the hurricane (and floods in the case of Australia). The hashtags #qldfloods, #HurricaneSandy and #frankenstorm are the starting point around which the conversation takes place. Ordinary citizens and newsrooms engage themselves in news reporting activities: tweets, pictures, links and videos that describe ongoing events, give updates and information. Here the digital community (Twitter) meets local (Australia, New York City) through the uploading and sharing of information and content. Digital tools are now giving voices to people who were previously unheard. Mark Deuze acknowledges that this new digital ecosystem in which we live has led to the disintegration of the nation-states power and the rise of a ‘translocal’ network. He claims that “all kinds of forces and and social movements compete for attention, recognition, and cultural acceptance” (Deuze 2007, 8).

Digital National Communities
Castells (2008) argues that harnessing public opinion through Internet networks is “the most effective form of broadening political participation on a global scale”. He states that this communication space defines “the new global public sphere” (op cit.,  90). Loader and Mercea (2011, 757) similarly explain that the potential to create ‘digital democracy’ has been “significantly improved through open and equal deliberation between citizens, representatives and policy-makers, afforded by the new information and communication technologies”. Leadbeater (2009, 176) echoes these sentiments and suggests that because of the shifts in information flows, the web should “allow a more diverse range of people to participate more fully in democratic debate and create ways to campaign, debate, deliberate and scrutinize”. Dahlgren (2005, 152) suggests that the political realm is where the Internet “obviously makes a contribution to the public sphere”. He acknowledges the plethora of websites aimed at the “local, national and global levels” of which “some are partisan, most are not”.

Steele and Stein insisted that the internet will “transform economic, social and political life, including international relations, by creating new forms of community and interaction not yet imaginable” (Steele & Stein 2002, 25). Their prophecy of new communities and interaction appears to have been realized with the emergence of social networking websites like Facebook, Twitter as well as user-generated web applications like YouTube, which have transformed how we communicate with one another (Williams 2008, 682–686).

However, Morozov (2011) signals some concerns around digital democracy and our “growing dependence on companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google as the providers of digital infrastructure that makes cyber-activism possible”. He compares the current digital space to that of a “shopping mall” rather than a “community playground” (op cit., 62). This is a very important issue for the role of the Internet and especially for the role of social media platforms in creating a democratic sphere because, as Morozov explains, “they all have global business interests and eye expansion abroad. Being seen as the digital equivalents of the Voice of America is bound to create additional liabilities for them in important markets” (op cit.).

As mentioned before, the Internet has provided people with mobilization without restriction and in a global scale. However, according to Delanty (2010), globalization is not fading out the notions of state or nation. He states that ‘Globalization is not bringing about the end of the nation states, but is bringing about its reconstitution’ (Delanty, 2010: 121). Digital media are still considered as tools for changes in a national scale. Recent movements in Middle East show that how citizens use digital media to evade constraints on national media (Cottle, 2011).

There are also other examples of how digital media offer opportunities for national related issues. For instance, in recent earthquake in Iran, Tabriz, citizens called each other’s help through online communities, citizens have reported their visit from damaged areas and shared their photos and videos to show the extent of disaster while the mainstream media tried to underestimate the destruction and people’s problem in the area. People have collected donations by sharing account numbers of non-governmental donors and by photos and movies and sharing them via online communities, they have showed that people’s donations are spending in the right way. As can be seen, digital media do not only feed globalization and global activities.

Portes  demonstrated very well the idea of national communities in his article (with the example provided by Robert C. Smith). The main idea was about the residents of Ticuani, a small farming community in the Mixteca region of Mexico, who wanted a clean water supply. They turned to a private civic group, the Ticuani Potable Water Committee and with a help of this Committee they quickly raised $50,000 by small donation. The most interesting thing here is that the water committee wasn’t in Ticuani, it was in Brooklyn, New York (Portes 2001). This case showed how immigrants could collaborate with a help of modern technologies.  Author mentioned that “the Ticuani-Brooklyn network is an example of a phenomenon of growing importance–communities that span national borders.” (Portes 2001). It supports Iyer’s thesis that “taken individually, the urban and technological forms associated with ‘virtualization’ may be seen to be fragmenting the experience of geographic community” (in Holmes 2001, 5).

Furthermore, communities of emigrants or diaspora in general demonstrate how communication technologies influence people in era of globalization. As Knight (2002, 4) noted, “communication and transportation advances have made it easier for diasporic and other migrant communities to keep in touch with others in the ancestral homeland or in other countries where individuals from those ethnic communities may be found”.

Especially for Europe, we should also take a look on Attac (which means association pour la taxation des transactions financières et pour l’action citoyenne), an activist organization originally created for promoting the establishment of a tax on foreign exchange transactions. They are now operating in 50 countries and do have 90.000 members in total, 25.000 of them in Germany. There it focuses on bringing the problematical aspects of globalization to the general public by The special thing about Attac is the combination of its members: you can join them as an individual but there are also other organizations in it, such as Greenpeace. They are organized through their own website, where they offer a blog, a mailing list, a forum for discussion and own publications on special topics. Their public actions awake a lot of attention in the public and they are documented through the social media like Facebook or Twitter. The “offline”-movement is therefore very well connected to the digital organization, so that it is possible to take choose your own activity: do I want to go out on the streets? Do I want to discuss a topic on a blog? Do I want both or do I want to read and give money. The good thing about the digital networks is the possibility to choose your own way of participation while every way leads to the same: everyone takes part equally, which is different in traditional “offline-networks”, where you just miss everything when you are not present.

A very novel idea is the platform Here individuals, retailers and producers are able to offer or collect surplus food. You can also arrange to cook together, to share surplus food with others, instead of throwing them away. It launched two weeks ago and is recently only available in a very few cities in order to check the possibilities of this idea. Again, we see how digital communities can influence the society politically or (just) make the people’s life more convenient.

Even though the geographic location seems to become less relevant in online environments, the concepts of national identity and cosmopolitanism are still present.

Ohler (2010, 31) claims that cosmopolitanism is an idea that is very alive today, surfacing in discussions of global citizenship, global education and projects that stress a global perspective. and are examples of online communities respectively aimed at Italian citizens living out of Italy and Italians planning to move abroad. Nationality and space, as in geographical location, are the concepts at the base of the virtual environments. A ‘non-Italian’ would not be able to understand certain topic discussed, feelings or viewpoints shared between members of the community. In addition, Italians living in the same country (e.g. Italians living in England) have common themes and topic of conversation.
Are There Truly Global Digital Communities?
Another function of online communities mentioned by Norris (2002) is bonding; some online communities are a platform for ‘reinforcing bonding (deepening contact with people of similar beliefs or interests) than for bridging (widening contact with people from diverse social backgrounds)’ (op cit., 7). People shape and join online communities based on shared values and they are not confined by local or national barriers. One could join a rock music fan community from Finland and one could join from China. In particular, global movements, such as anti-war and anti-globalization movements show the implication of digital communities in a global scale (Kahn & Kellner 2004).

Global activists are not isolated anymore by using new media, Internet, mobile phones and other technologies and spreading their activities beyond geographical and media barriers (Bennett 2003). “Social-movement watchers agree that the new media offer new opportunities for international collective action, but are more skeptical on the development of stable, long-lasting movements in the future” (Aelst & Walgrave 2002, 466). As a matter of fact, global digital communities exist, at least for a short period, to bond dispersed people around a goal.

“We are alone together”. This quotation by Turkle (2011) describes the life in a digital community very well, although it has a more bad aftertaste than it should has. She also questions, how we relate to others and to ourselves and that people want to be to each other but also elsewhere. And this is actually how a community works and what it profits of. Because the people CAN be elsewhere and networking together at the same time. So the people from all over the world, with different views and perspectives can contribute to the community. And therefore the global digital community is changing all the time and is living actively, which – as Delanty (2010) says – is one of the main attributes of a community. And by this contribution of very different views and aspects, the community gets stronger and can therefore deals as the “primary source of strength for all kinds of societies” (König 1968) even in a better way then König knew back in 1968.

Nobody denies the fact that we live in the era of global economy, global culture and global politics. Then, why would we doubt the fact of emergence of global digital communities? Digital technologies give unlimited possibilities for people to build new types of community in cyberspace. However, if we speak not only about developed countries, such factors as language or access to the Internet could limit possibility to build this community in virtual world.

Castells presented exceptional theory of network society based on deep analysis of vast amount of data. In this theory the answer for the question “are There Truly Global Digital Communities” can be found. We started to leave in completely new era, in new network type of society. A culture of ‘real virtuality’ has been formed in our new society, where “a system in which reality itself is entirely captured, fully immersed in a virtual image setting, in the world of make belief, in which appearances are not just on the screen through which experience is communicated, but they become the experience” (in van Dijk 2001, 7). In his interview for BBC Radio, Castells claimed that “we live in a culture of not virtual reality, but real virtuality because our virtuality – meaning the internet networks – are a fundamental part of our reality”. Thus, communities that were built in cyberspace become part of our real life and vise verse. Virtual reality is global phenomenon. Information in the Internet could be easily reached from all over the world if nothing limits this access. That is why our virtual communities become part of global space and turned from simply digital communities into global digital communities.

Potentially, online environments opened to everyone, regardless of their nationality, represent global digital communities. The first names that come to mind in this context are social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The ‘tweeting social media’ in particular, for the fact that people can follow other people without necessarily knowing them in person (in this sense Facebook is more ‘private, because users have to send a friend request to one another, and it is rather unlikely that people, who do not know each other in the offline world, will become Facebook friends). The real situation is different, though. When discussing the Internet, scholars have to keep in mind the digital divide. This refers to the fact that technology is not accessible to everyone, due to its costs. In this sense, there is no real global digital community.

However, Compaine (2001) seems to have a rather positive view of the future. The author of The Digital Divide: Facing a Crisis Or Creating a Myth? claims that at least two factors account for the rapid diffusion of Internet technology: steadily decreasing costs of use, and steadily increasing ease of use. In the coming months I believe that these trends will continue and that controversies about the “digital divide” will fade away (Compaine, 2001: Foreword).

Borgmann (2004) identifies three types of community: instrumental, final and commodified. He states that instrumental communities on the Internet proliferate “where individuals gather to discuss politics, or hobbies or to work in teams” (op cit., 9). Commodified communities repackage an offline experience for an online purpose. Borgmann argues that both of these forms of community are accomplished easily over the Internet, however, “final communities require the fullness of reality, the bodily presence of person, and the commanding presence of things”. He says that these cannot be acquired through online communities and “will founder on the shoals of commodification” (op cit., 63).

Many scholars argue that traditional notions of communities are “outdated and obsolete” and even discounting the Internet, “it is typical for the modern person to belong to nonlocal social networks that are multiple and specialized rather than solitary and geographically bounded”. In this sense, online communities could even be seen as the glue that enables certain communities to exist in an increasingly globalized world.



Postmodern age is described as age of ‘time-space compression’. Massey (1994, 1) argues that because of this there is “almost obligatory use in the literature of terms and phrases such as speed-up, global village, overcoming spatial barriers, the disruption of horizons, and so forth”. Digital technologies are the first and main reason why all these happens.  In such situation traditional notion of community should be reconsidered and expanded. Digital communities are not only new type of community form, but also new level of existence for them.

Considering all the facts about the substantial changes in the notion of community and its location as fluid concepts since the widespread usage of the Internet, we need to take into account the dialectic relationship between virtual and physical realities (Muller, 2001). As Muller (op cit.)claims, online participation is concerned to social construction and offline reality and has consequences as constructing or changing influence in the physical reality.

“The motivation to share is the driver; technology is just the enabler” (Shirky 2010, 79). This quote condenses an essence of digital global community. The digitalism would be the driver here, the motivation to share, to connect, to talk with other people has always been there and with every technological step, the way of communicating and therefore community building changed. So the technology (Internet) is now one of the enabler to let people share and communicate.

To give the reader an idea of how difficult community is to define, Wikipedia opens its article on community with the following: “In sociology, the concept of community has caused infinite debate, and sociologists are yet to reach agreement on a definition on the term (Ohler 2010, 37). As discussed, Ohler (op cit.) considers digital communities as the latest evolutionary step of the traditional concept of community (following the preindustrial solidary, the industrial neighborhoods and the postindustrial networks communities). The scholar adds that digital communities are the groups that are primarily sustained through electronic (op cit.,41), through the Internet. In this sense, the term digital appears appropriate.

However, it is only potentially possible to talk about a global digital community, because of the digital divide. The number of Internet user, and online communities’ potential members, is not the same as the total amount of the world’s population. For reasons of costs and use, technology is more diffused in specific parts of the globe, rather than others. For this reason, when mentioning the concept of global digital community, one ought to keep in mind that a global virtual community is only a possible scenario. At the moment, digital divide is still an issue.
The concept of community can be both lost and enhanced through digital platforms depending on any individual’s definition of community. However, this paper has demonstrated the Internet’s ability to create dynamic and resourceful communities that have established new methods of expression and interaction never before seen. Maria Bakardjieva’s studies into online communities have shown us that users “are able to overcome the narrowness of the communication channel and find ways to create personal images of each other despite it” (Bakardjieva 2004, 12). Feenberg’s and Bakardjieva’s poignant conclusion perfectly embodies my sentiments regarding communities online:

“Human beings engage with each other in many different ways, producing many different kinds of value in their own and each others’ lives on the Internet as in the real world. Some of these interactions have the affective and moral qualities we associate with community, others have different communicative purposes such as obtaining information, and still others are strictly commercial and minimize human connection”.

(Feenberg & Bakardjieva 2004, 12).

Aelst, P., Walgrave, S. (2002). New media, new movements? The role of the internet in shaping the ‘ anti-globalization’ movement. Information, Communication & Society, 5(4), pp. 465-493.

Anderson, B. (2006/1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.
Bauman, Z. (2001). Community: seeking safety in an insecure world. Cambridge Malden, MA: Polity Blackwell.

Bennett, W.L. (2003). New Media Power: The Internet and Global Activism. In: Couldry,N. and Curran, J. (ed.). Contesting media power: alternative media in a networked world. United States of America: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Bruns, A., Burgess, J. (2011). New Methodologies for Researching News Discussion on Twitter. The Future of Journalism 2011, September 2011, Cardiff: Cardiff University.

Bruns, A., Burgess, J. Crawford, K., Shaw, F. (2012) #qldfloods and @QPSMedia: Crisis Communication on Twitter in the 2011 South East Queensland Floods. Brisbane: ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation

Compaine, B. M. (2001) The Digital Divide: Facing a Crisis Or Creating a Myth? United States: MIT Press.
Cottle, S. (2011). Media and the Arab Uprisings 2011: Research Notes. Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism, 12(5): pp. 647-659.

Dahlgren, Peter (2005). ‘The Internet, Public Spheres, and Political Communication: Dispersion and Deliberation’, Political Communication, 22: 2, pp.147-162.
Delanty, G. (2010). Community, Second Edition. London & New York: Routledge.

Deuze, M. (2007). Media Work. Indiana: Polity Press.

Etzioni, A. (1996). The New Golden Rule – Community and Morality in a Democratic Society. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Gotved, S., (2002). Spatial Dimensions in Online Communities. Space & Culture, 5(4), pp. 405-414.

Howard, P. H., Jones, S. (2004). Society Online: The Internet in Context. United States: Sage Publications.

Ishida, T. (2000). Digital City Kyoto: Social Information Infrastructure for Everyday Life. [online] Available at: <>.

Jankowski, N. (2006). Creating Community with Media: History, Theories and Scientific Investigations. In : L. Lievrouw and S. Livingstone, ed. 2006. Handbook of new media : London: Sage publication. Ch.2.

Jones, Q. (1997). “Virtual-communities, virtual settlements & cyber-archaeology: A theorethical outline”, Journal of Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 3 (3)

Kahn,R. and Kellner. D. (2004). New media and internet activism: from the ‘Battle of Seattle’ to blogging.New media and society, 6(1), pp.87-95.

Knight, W. A. (2002). “Conceptualizing Transnational Community Formation: Migrants, Sojourners and Diasporas in a Globalized Era”, Canadian Studies in Population, 29 (1).

König, R. (1968). The Community.  London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.

Leadbeater, C. (2009). We-Think: Mass innovation, not mass production. London: Profile Books.

Lessig, L. (2012). REMIX: How Creativity Is Being Strangled by the Law. In Mandiberg, M. (ed.). The Social Media Reader. NYU Press: London & New York. (p. 155- 169).
Loader, Brian D. and Mercea, Dan (2011). Networking Democracy? Social media innovations and participatory politics. Information, Communication & Society. 14 (p. 757-769).

Mason, Paul (2012). “Viewpoint: Manuel Castells on the rise of alternative economic cultures”, BBC Radio 4, 21 October, accessed 16 December 2012 [].

Massey, D. (1994). “A global sense of place”,  Space, place and gender, Cambridge, Polity Press, pp. 146-156 .

McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. University of Toronto Press.

Morozov, E. (2011). America’s Internet Freedom Agenda. New Perspectives Quarterly. 28 (2)

Muller, A. (2011). “Virtual communities and translation into physical reality in the “It Gets Better’ project”’, Journal of Media Practice 12: 3, pp. 269–277.

Norris, P. (2002). The Bridging and Bonding Role of Online Communities. The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 7(3), pp. 3-13.

Ohler, J. B. (2010). Digital Community, Digital Citizen. United States: Corwin.
Portes, A. (2001). “Global Villagers: The Rise of Transnational Communities”, The American Prospect, 19 December, accessed 16 December 2012 [].

Preece, J., Krichmar, D. and Abras, C. (2003). History and emergence of online communities. In: In B. Wellman ,Ed. Encyclopedia of Community. New York: Berkshire Publishing Group.

Preece, J., and Maloney-Krichmar, D. (2005). Online communities: Design, theory, and practice. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10 (4), article 1.

Rheingold, H. (1993). “A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community”, in Global networks : computers and international communication. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, Ch. 4, pp. 57-82.

Rheingold, H. (2000). The Virtual Community:  Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. United States: MIT Press Edition.

Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive Surplus: How technology makes consumers into collaborators. New York: Penguin Books.

Song, F. (2009). Virtual Communities: Bowling Alone, Online Together. London: Peter Lang Publishing Inc.

Steele, C. & Stein, A. (2002). Technology, Development, and Democracy: International Conflict and Cooperation in the Information Age . New York: State University of New York.

Turkle, S. (2011) Alone Together. Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.

van Dijk, J. A.G.M. (1999). “The One-Dimensional Network Society of Manuel Castells”, New Media and Society, 1(1).

Wellman, B., Boas, J. and Chen, W. (2002). The networked nature of community online and offline. IT & society, 1(1), pp. 151-165.

Williams, B. T. (2008). “Tomorrow Will Not be Like Today”: Literacy and Identity in a World of Multiliteracies. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.

Wilson,S., Peterson, L. (2002). The Anthropology of online communities. Annual Review of Anthropology, Autumn issue, pp. 449-467.

Posted by: Minna Aslama Horowitz | December 14, 2012

Recap of 11.12.: Defining the Undefinable

2012-12-11 13.34.16 OUTCOMES… DO YOU AGREE? 

“You can’t build an online community, you can search for and find them.” (E.g., the case of Scoopinion)

You can’t categorize online communities pertaining to their mission or focus. Often they are multi-purpose, changing.

There’s a difference between communities that are using digital tools — and communities based on online digital

“Maybe we shouldn’t talk about communities anymore.” Perhaps the term can’t capture the fluid nature of these formations; their multiple ‘identities’; the undefined degree to which they are requiring commitment (not); the lowest common denominator of members being — as low as it gets. We are free to be free online, participate to the extent we desire. Those flocks of birds…

At the same time, as Social Info Processing Theory has argued, we do develop intense bonds and connections online, sometimes even hyperpersonal relationships. The emotional is essential online.

One of the biggest lessons for non and for-profits: Creating Shared Value. This is something that public media organizations have done for decades. Are public media now being (spontaneously) created online? Since, as Shirky would claim: We have an innate desire to create and share — for value.

Yet, there are very concrete limitations to this creation. Access, freedom of expression, internet governance. Right now, the new models of who gets to decide about the Internet are being discussed in Dubai. And even the groups of Digital Dissidents and Media Reformers (e.g. Internet Freedom activists) are quite exclusive, predominantly white, male, Western

What could we do as scholars? WHAT WOULD BE YOUR TOPICS OF RESEARCH — WHAT SHOULD WE KNOW? And should we engage in (political/ideological) discussions and debates about online communities? What kind of communities should we form?

We’ve only scratched the surface. Please consider this blog, the Dropbox and the google docs as your repository of great ideas, examples, comments, sources that you can refer back to in your future studies. Thank you for creating this!

  • 2012-12-11 10.53.362012-12-11 10.47.28 2012-12-11 10.50.25 2012-12-11 11.07.30 2012-12-11 11.12.38 2012-12-11 11.16.00 2012-12-11 11.19.49 2012-12-11 11.49.28 2012-12-11 11.56.53
Posted by: Minna Aslama Horowitz | December 4, 2012

Week 6: The Reformers: Digital Dissidents

The dividing line between helpers and dissidents is ambiguous if not arbitrary — as documented by you in your responses last week. Often, a specific issue inspires a community that both aims for socio-political and cultural change, as well as offers support (helper) functions. An example of this could be the YouTube-based It Gets Better project, an  initiative that seeks to offer support for Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, Queer youth.

Similarly, there are different modalities of ‘digitally enabled social change’. For example, in their research, scholars Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport suggest this continuum of online activism:

2012-12-01 11.52.45

Digital Dissidents for Democracy

In terms of major aspirations of radical structural change, and acts of resistance, we all are familiar with the the  powerful examples of the Arab Spring, and brave individuals and groups (not only “We Are All Malala” but  also “We Are All Khaled Said”). Yet, political Internet activism has long roots, for example in the Mexican Zapatista movement.

Social media have recently brought different opportunities, and challenges, to E-mobilization, E-tactics, and E-movements. Here’s an insightful account by Rasha A. Abdulla,  associate professor in the department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo and one of our experts in this course: The Revolution Will Be Tweeted. Read her account of Egyptian Spring — and if you’d like to ask any questions, please post below!

Movements2012-06-28 09.16.42 have gone global because of digital media. Arguably, the Occupy Movement, for example, has used an interesting mix of communicative tools and media, from hand gestures to online and mobile organizing — but certainly spread around the world because of social media. (Here’s a fascinating account of the birth of the movement). Occupy Sandy broadened the movement from protesting to doing hands-on disaster relief work. It also spurred a collaborative documentary project.Screen shot 2012-12-01 at 5.30.24 AM

Other times, social media platforms feature more spontaneous political reactions and protests, such as the infamous YouTube Muhammad video and its tragic aftermath — and the related Twitter response #MuslimRage that followed, as a protest to a mainstream media story  (a condensed account with a great discussion and a slideshow on HuffPost).

This excellent article from The Guardian showcases an array of examples of political digital humanitarianism (my term, but I’m sure you know where I’m going with it). The blog iRevolution, mentioned in the article, is one of my go-to sources of all things techie assistance from disasters to revolutions.

Media Reformers

But we have also discussed how, sometimes, digital platforms are not only tools for democracy, but tools for surveillance by non-democratic regimes (remember Clay Shirky and Evgeny Morozov debating in this blog post of the Weeks 3-4).

And that leads us to a very particular form of digital community-building for social justice, the one by those communities that are concerned about our digital (human) rights, and reforming the media themselves, for a more democratic world (the terms often used are Media Reform and Media Justice).

Here’s a short and simple video I did (for a group of Freshmen students) on digital human rights; here’s a related blog post.

In some cases, and countries, media reform efforts take an organized, official form. An anti-copyright movement transforms into a political party, as in the case of the Pirate Party that is active in numerous countries (Dahlgren’s ‘protopolitical’ turning into officially political).

Although internet access and digital divide are often considered as basic questions of infrastructure, and hence most often considered as the responsibility of national governments (and activism seeks to change those policies), there are numerous free wireless and mesh network projects (see also comments for week 5!).

In other cases, issue-driven global communities are formed to counter corporate-driven Internet. Some advocate for, and create, open source code; others wish to create a global community that wants to share their creative work with a self-defined licensing, not by corporate-owned copyright. shot 2012-11-30 at 8.02.01 PM

Back to Basics: Internet Freedom

Yet others are fear for diminishing freedom of the Internet itself. Apart from blatant censorship and dramatic government responses such as the recent one in Syria, there are more ‘subtle’, yet no less important, challenges. Here’s a short video by the journalist/researcher/global internet freedom activist Rebecca MacKinnon (once more — she’s a favourite — in the Oslo Freedom Forum). Using TeliaSonera as a poignant example, she’s discusses her concern about the ways in which commercial imperatives and business practices may, in fact, endanger free online expression.

Here is an extensive list, compiled by Rebecca, of global and national organizations 2012-07-16 13.52.43(communities?),  that work for maintaining the freedom of the networks. (Perhaps you’ll find inspiration from the list for your country case?)

And Personal Democracy Media, the TED-like organization of practitioners, scholars, activist, policy-makers already mentioned earllier, offers great video lectures on Net Policy & Activism. The videos showcase how important media policy-making has become in terms of democracy (and possibilities of community-building), and how it thus become a great interest to media-focused activism.

Incidentally: Today, the 3rd of Dec 2012, marks the beginning of an international conference — in which the world’s leaders will discuss the future regulation of the internet. Many online and offline communities are not too happy about the lack of transparency and of civil society participation in this ITU-driven gathering. Why? Here’s one brief explanation in a video format.


Screen shot 2012-11-23 at 8.57.18 AMYet, there are also are those who wouldn’t be interested in participating in global deliberations, but who use direct digital actions to make their voices heard; those whom some call cyber-terrorists, others hails as freedom fighters: The Anonymous and other hacktivist groups. Here’s a great article by the anthropologist Gabriella Coleman on the nature of the Anonymous as a community — “Our Weirdness is Free”. And here’s a Wikipedia timeline on the activism of The Anonymous.

These are all concrete examples of the transformative power of digital media. But they still are relatively isolated experiments, digital communities for social justice only in the making. So the question becomes: Are we, postmodern individualist humans, capable of working together for true freedom and equality? Now that we know more about the world, and connect more easily with others, than ever before in human history — can we really accept others? Or are online communities temporary and fleeing constructions?

Assignment for this week, due by our meeting on Tuesday 11 Dec:

  • We will get together at Siltavuorenpenger 1 PSY Sali 2 at 10 am for a fascinating Guest Lecture (yet another angle to community building!). We’ll break for lunch and meet again at 13hrs to discuss what we’ve learned from a particular case study of a community formation (The Anonymous) and from our collective country cases.  We’ll finish by 15hrs. So, by 11.12.:
  • Explore the blog post (lots to read/watch).
  • Watch We Are Legion
  • Read at least 2 of the following (any 2 — or all, if inspired):  Jansen (in Dropbox, Chptrs 10, 11, 12) = Sullivan (open software), Andrejevic (surveillance), Martin (defending dissent); from the Social Media Reader (in Dropbox) = Coleman (hackers/trolls), Lessig (free culture – copyrights);  articles in Dropbox: Muller (It gets Better – the YouTube project); re-read Youmans & York.
  • There are also a couple of additional resources, just for fun – “Extras” in our Dropbox: Reports on 1) social media in revolutions and 2) Freedom of Expression around the world, as well as 3) a handbook for safely producing media as dissidents, and 4) a ‘cyber-dissident’s handbook’. For you to explore if you’d like to.
  • Add to the google doc: any dissidents / media reformers in your country?
  • Comment below about any major/minor takeaways of this week re: your country and/or more generally.
  • Read other people’s comments here and on our google doc about their countries — be prepared to discuss on 11.12.
  • Want bonus points? Inspired by Chris’ comments on gamification (see Week 5), here’s an opportunity: Go ahead and explore a game at and share your thoughts briefly below.
  • NOTE: Would you like to discuss your final paper in person? Book a time from Minna for Mon 10 Dec  13-15hrs. You can always also email and / or skype, anytime.
Posted by: Minna Aslama Horowitz | November 27, 2012

Week 5: The Helpers. Digital Humanitarianism

Motto for the Week : «Destabilization can extend political communication through horizontal civic communication, as well as through vertical communication between citizens». – P. Dahlgren

[Image:  Australian Aboriginal painting from the 1970s, depicting her community from a bird’s-eye view; mapping trees, bushes, stones, wells…]

We’ve learned about categories of participation, different kinds of public spheres emerging online, and the scale of collaborative intensity. We’ve looked a case of journalism that approaches the idea of community in a variety of ways.

During Weeks 5 and 6, we’ll examine some real life cases of digital communities. We’ll group them in two very broad categories.

This week, we’ll look at communities that gather online to help; that use digital organizing as one tool in doing good. Next week, we will look at communities that are involved in making social change happen; in using digital platforms to resist, to protest, to offer alternative structures, policies, practices, and  justice. (The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive — but this divide may help us to observe some specific dynamics and practices of the The Helpers and The Change-Makers/Dissidents).

Skepticism vs. Optimism

Quoting the famous urban sociologist Richard Sennett, “WE” is a protective strategy. For many, the question is about survival, and about what needs to survive in which conditions. Are we immigrants who stick together in a new country? Are we dissidents who seek company of the like-minded to make a difference? Are we parents who wish to collaborate with other parents to increase the safety of our block?

At the same time, for many a community is less about surviving than about agreeing, even conforming. It may be about maintaining the integrity and togetherness based on economic, political, perhaps even religious principles. In many national levels in the Western world, a growing concern about individualization and fragmentation of societies has been expressed by academics and individuals alike for the past decades. These are thinkers who see community less as a spontaneous and organic, more as a structured political unity that requires commitment. They fear that we’re ‘Bowling Alone‘ now…

One danger is that we no longer want to act as committed, informed citizens. And a great deal of blame has been put to mainstream media. At first, popularization and entertainization of mass media was said to be the cause for distrust in politics and political communities. Then Web 2.0 came along and the fears of ever more individualized lives emerged. Communities seem to appear and disappear ever more rapidly; and many of them seem to relate to mere entertainment and diversion, not political action. As the famous sociologist Anthony Giddens notes, the fear of disintegration of  social systems became ever more evident (and has happened concretely in the Arab World, for instance).

It has also been suggested many ‘community skeptics’ that since our ‘post-modern’ societies are characterized by ever increasing change, and since communities are consequently also changing faster and faster, there is a sense of loss and longing to an (utopian) community that would stabilize us. Technology plays a key role in most changes. While it has created a global village, how deeply engaged are we, after all, as members of that village? Is it, as  Zygmunt Bauman argues (see, also, this article), that while we know more than ever about the ‘miseries of the world’, we actually can do proportionally less to help:

One thing which has thus far escaped globalisation is our collective ability to act globally. Since our mutual dependence is already by and large global, our moral responsibility for each other is real as never before. Given, however, the economic bias of globalisation (the absence of political “artificial hands”), taking responsibility becomes yet more difficult. Our sensitivity is assaulted by sights which are bound to trigger our moral impulse to help – yet it is far from obvious what we could do to bring relief and succour to the sufferers.

Moral impulse won’t be enough to assure that the commitment to help will follow the sight of suffering. Indeed, our moral responses are increasingly blunted by our incapacity to act – we feel voyeuristic. Not for want of trying. We elect leaders to act on our behalf and to come together to agree on standards of actions which have global consequences.

There are a few approaches to the above: Knowledge about global problems doesn’t necessarily translate into action; we know so much but don’t have the tools to act. Alternatively, we do not commit to real action but, rather, engage in slacktivism… At the same time, individually, we are very committed to technology that facilitates communication (- forming a community – let’s not forget how close those terms are.) But  we can support movements such as the Arab Spring or a lone Pakistani girl wanting to educate herself (“We Are All Malala”)– merely because now we and the world knows, that is already a form of action, a form of international knowledge community, that can force change locally, nationally, regionally. Some people even talk about the do-it-yourself-foreign policy.

Digital Helpers: Different Shapes and Forms

But then we have Digital Humanitarianism, well explained in this short TedTalk. Digital platforms have not only made us aware but digital tools also help in new, creative ways:

  • The crisis mapping tool Ushahidi (great short intros here and here) is perhaps the most often cited example — and extensively analyzed by Shirky. We already talked about a similar local initiative, the MIT Hurricanehackers. Some even call these kinds of mapping efforts new journalism.
  • Projects like Kiva has made micro-lending easy and effective (see and example here). (And mobile banking — while often not a community — provides boost to emerging economies.)
  • Digital tools are giving people voices: One of pioneers is the non-profit Witness is teaching video activism against  human rights violations — and creating new communities (see the timeline of the organization here — it illustrates the development of digital platforms for human rights reporting in a great way.)
  • Free online education opens doors to those formerly very much excluded (as long as you have a computer). (BTW: Here’s a great Knight Journalism Foundation free online course on data visualization and infographics, taking place in January!)
  • Mhealth is one of the emerging fields of humanitarian action.

The examples of global implications are endless.

But as Clark and Aufderheide (in Jansen) note, people are now part of different publics; they form different kinds of communities. note local effects can be equally important: One of my favourite projects, small but effective, is VozMob, “a platform for immigrant and non-immigrant low wage workers in Los Angeles to create stories about their lives and communities directly from cell phones, thus gaining greater participation in the digital public sphere, especially for those with limited access to computers.”

And then we have issue-driven communities. Apart from all political-social causes, there are the fan helpers like those of the indie rock star Amanda Palmer: Her goal was to get $100,000 but she raised over 1 million on Kickstarter in less than a month (an act so unusual that it even caused a scandal). Harry Potter fans become “cultural acupuncturists” and use their community to evoke human rights activism. And there are friends of pitbulls (like me) who share rescue information, fundraise, and organize adoptions via Facebook. And so on…

Finally, we have national governments increasingly utilizing open data and digital technology. For instance, Icelanders just approved their crowdsourced constitution. Finland has recently launched a government-civic society partnership project for legislative proposals form the citizens… And here’s a short video depicting examples of e-government from the U.K.

Our Guest Blogger this week, Dr. Itir Akdogan, gives us an in-depth example: She  shares her experiences of a very concrete project making both (government) authorities and immigrants aware of the e-tools for inclusion and community-building.

Assignments for this week:

  • Re-read Shirky (what you might have left over).
  • Think of digital communities as ‘helpers’. Using ‘your country’ as a case, share your thoughts (enthusiasm as well as doubts) and interesting examples here, as a comment. Can you find examples that are specific to your country, or the region, or address a specific issue that pertains to your country? In addition, please make a quick note of those examples on our crowdsourced country mapping table on google docs, under “Digital Humanitarians” (communities to aid social/econ. development or the like) and “Cultural Collaborators” (other interesting communities).
  • Explore Itir’s post and especially the concrete toolkits for community-building. If you wish, do comment, ask questions, reflect. Itir will respond to any queries.
  • Due, as always, Fri night.
Posted by: itirakdogan | November 26, 2012

Immigrant Inclusion by e-Participation

Guest Post by Itir Akdogan, a Helsinki PhD and an e-participation researcher/activist.


My friend Leo from Brazil has introduced me (from Turkey) to (now my friend) Matthias from Germany, on Facebook: “You guys should meet for coffee, seems like you both work on the same stuff”.  A couple of days later, at Kappeli, Matthias and I were discovering that we both indeed were working on e-democracy.  I was doing my PhD on the interaction of the new information and communication technologies (ICT) and the political life, at the University of Helsinki. He was the coordinator of the Immigrant Inclusion by e-Participation (IIeP) Project, a multi-stakeholder regional project that Palmenia was leading. A couple of months later, Matthias calls and asks “do you want my job?”, I say “sure”.  Due to some technical limitations, and given my expertise on e-participation both in academic and civil society perspectives, we decided that it is better if I join in as a researcher.  This is how the network of immigrants in Helsinki works 😉 – at least among the researcher community.

Other immigrants, however, may not be that lucky. Most of them face challenges and limitations in being included in the society of their new or second home. The IIeP project aimed at enhancing inclusive societies with the ICT in Estonia, Finland, and Sweden. The idea was to analyse the obstacles of (e-) participation and present advice on how ICT may help authorities as well as immigrant organizations to overcome these obstacles for participatory inclusive decision-making processes. The final products are two manuals, one addressed to the authorities, the other to the immigrants. Some of the papers of the international joint workshop that we have organized on the way have also been collected for a special issue of the International Journal of e-Politics due January 2013.

I guess the most powerful characteristics of the project were that the staff included immigrants in all three local teams in the three countries and, very importantly, we used the ICT for our collaborative work. I mean, we practiced ourselves what we advised to authorities and immigrants. The multi-stakeholdership guaranteed a certain balance in the content and design of the manuals, while differences in working cultures and different approaches and practices of democracy presented some challenges. Nevertheless, we found peaceful ways to cope with those challenges [turning off the Skype camera helped!] and we successfully have delivered the two manuals. Even though the target group of the project is immigrants, I believe the advice on the authority manual may also help improving the e-participation practices and opportunities for the larger public.  We all know that meaningful (e-) participation is still very limited for all the citizens.

Posted by: Minna Aslama Horowitz | November 23, 2012

Final Paper: Topics and Tips

It’s that time of the year. Final Papers are due sooner than we think.

For this course, you have 2 basic choices:

  1. Individual work. For that, you can choose from 2 orientations: (1) Theorizing Digital Communities or (2) A Digital Community Case Study. In other words, you can choose to write a theoretical-conceptual essay that assesses a theory or compares several theories around digital communities. Alternatively, you may decide to write a more empirically-oriented analysis (and perhaps use the Crowd Research Assignment as your basis… Just sayin’…). 10+ pages 1.5 space, 12pt Times New Roman or equivalent. Due 16 December 2012 by midnight Helsinki time.
  2.  Wiki Essay. Together with your colleagues, you will write a collaborative paper on local, national, and global implications of digital communities. You will work on the paper every week until 16.12., starting on Monday. The paper is based on, but expands, our discussions and our crowdsourced country mapping. This is our platform. PLEASE go and SIGN UP there by Monday evening. We need min. 5 but max. 10 participants in this experiment.

If you’d like to discuss your individual paper, please feel free to skype me anytime you see me online (minski.aslama), email me, or book a time to meet briefly in Helsinki (e.g., after our movie screening on 10 Dec.)

You are all seasoned researchers. Just in case, below are some basic parameters of a solid research paper (and yes, rules are meant to be broken if  you have a good reason to):

Topic: Choose an issue that really interests you. That will shine through in your work. Yet, remember: Your topic should be ‘doable’, focused, resulting in well-argued analysis, not just a broad statement of interest.

Format and related tips: The final paper is a scholarly research paper in which you are expected follow the conventions of such a text, including using scholarly sources and referencing them appropriately. Whichever topic you decide upon, please consider these suggestions regarding the format:


Include a clear a thesis statement, i.e., your core idea or argument, or your main questions.

Explain the background context of the issue/case.

Define your approach to the topic (why did you choose this particular case, and the viewpoint/angle, to examine this issue). Motivating the reader is important.

Body Text

Discuss your thesis statement/idea with logical description, or, when applicable, argumentation and examples that prove your point. Use reference literature. Be sure to differentiate between facts and opinions.

This section might be constructed as pro-con argumentation; for example, the advantages and disadvantages of digital humanitarianism, or, the strengths and weaknesses of the public sphere theories in analyzing online communities. Or, yours could be a more descriptive paper, tackling, e.g.,  the role of social media in the aftermath and reconstruction after Sandy, and describe the most important aspects.

Play attention to connections between paragraphs/sections. How can you make the body text (and the entire paper) a coherent, cohesive ‘story’?


Wrap up with a short concluding paragraph reiterating the issue and the lesson learned from your paper. Make suggestions of future research/action. Be (self-)critical and note any possible alternative views to, or problems with, the approach that you have taken – but convince the reader why your analysis still makes sense and is the best/most important/interesting/timely approach to the issue. And, when appropriate, suggest further research areas and questions.


Appr. 10 pages, 1.5 spaced, 12 pt. Times New Roman, or equivalent.


Plagiarism won’t be tolerated.  Therefore: REFERENCE ANYTHING THAT YOU DERIVED FROM A SOURCE – A BOOK, MAGAZINE, WEBSITE, BILLBOARD, TEXT MESSAGE  — anything that is not your own, original thought. Better  safe than sorry. In addition, be clear to make the reader aware of what is an empirical fact/observation, what is your opinion.

You can use any systematic way of referencing, as long as it includes the name of the author, the year of publication, the publisher and the place of publication, specific page numbers cited. For websites, include the date when they were accessed.

An example of a widely-used reference style: APA. Citations, quotations and list of references, as well as footnotes and tables, see: SECTIONS V. thru X.

Posted by: Minna Aslama Horowitz | November 22, 2012

Democracy NOW! Virtual Visit Recap

Democracy NOW! is a NYC-based news nonprofit, broadcasting every week-day  on TV and radio, as well as online for audiences around the world. DN also has an extensive social media presence.

DN fits our call for examples of digital communities in several ways:

It is directly funded by its audiences, and it seeks to build a sense of community around the programme — to make its supporters feel ownership of its existence and its editorial decisions. (For instance, DN! social media team is very responsive to audiences’ comments — just take a look at their Twitter feed — and  one can even tweet questions to the live newscast.)

DN also utilises a community of citizen journalists (e.g. the Indymedia network) and pro journalists specialized in global issues and particular regions, to  be able to offer news often absent in mainstream media supply. (They are often skyping in to provide a live report from the ground). As a nonprofit, DN has limited resources — but equally, the organization is interested in alternative views.

In addition, the editorial policies of DN include the idea of reporting on, and thus connecting, communities concerned about and working on global issues. While DN often covers local and US-focused news, the goal is to include a global perspective and show interconnectedness of politics, economy, security, health, environmental concerns, and so on. Often DN features experts who represent communities of citizen/civic activism.

(My tip: check out  DN archives if you are researching a global issue — you may find interesting interviews by activists, and others whose voices are not often heard.)

Here are some video highlights from our skype visit 21.11.2012:

PS: Those who attended the session — Simin would love your feedback and any further questions! You can reach her at:

Posted by: Minna Aslama Horowitz | November 13, 2012

Weeks 3 & 4: Digi Communities For Social Justice? The Medium and The Message

We’ve mapped participation and found many dimensions, from usability to consumption. Your Pinterest & Storify comments are incredibly rich — do revisit. We’ve even questioned whether we need the concept at all, discussing online communities. Johannes’ story board tells that the tale of implicit participation (and he came to the conclusion by crowsourcing Twitter). What do you think?

Or, as an Anonymous member described the cohort (We Are Legion): Like a flock of birds, just swirling around, until one flies to a certain direction — and others follow.

But is there a coop where all the pigeons meet? Who can create such places? For us social scientists participation is, at least historically, meaningful: Every democracy theory so far draws on the idea/l of participation. And, the search for coops never ends: Where can we come together, to act together, with a direction, for a common cause? Or, as the Grand Old Man of media and Social Justice research, Cees Hamelink, notes: “The aspiration toward just social arrangements have kept thinkers and activists busy for much recorded human history”  (Jansen Chpt 1, Dropbox).

And as another key figure, the media anthropologist Nick Couldry  argues, the term participation is a slippery one, but “[f]or all the potential of new media and digital tools.. what is at stake, in the end, is democracy — and effective democracy” (Jansen Chpt 3, Dropbox).

And, to quote Evelin:  “Clearly, empathy and solidarity are also possible with other media, but digital social media have made the ways to openly engage more accessible and easier.”

Digital Democratic Participation: There Are So Many Ways?

So yes, when the Internet came along, there were so many promises of democracy:

An open platform for community building. An accessible arena for deliberative discussion. A means to reach across space and disregard time to forge new relationships and rekindle old ones. An arena to deliberate and solve global issues and to form a multitude of new alliances across geographic, institutional and other sociocultural borders.

Over the last two decades now, cyberspace, known by its alter ego the virtual public sphere, has been overlaid with potential-filled promises to be the venue to engender democracy and build community, by scholars as diverse as Benkler and  Varnelis. Once a means merely to connect people to one another, the internet, with its dressing of Web 2.0 finery, is said to have evolved into a place for substantive social organizing. Moreover, according to scholars such as Jenkins, not only have we now found an extensible environment to support our diverse and distributed public activities, but we are also spawning a culture of participation that enables us to showcase our individuated productions while simultaneously adding both nuance and weight to the composite portrait of public activity. (Erickson & Aslama)

A key figure in theorizing (old) media and democracy, Peter Dahlgren (2005, see Dropbox), has seen the development of Civic Cultures in the Internet era, something close to Robert Putnam’s idea of “social capital”: Civic cultures are resources for individuals and groups when they act as citizens, including Knowledge and competence, ValuesAffinity and trust, Practices, and Identities. He has also categorized ways of online activity and interaction that is relevant to political participation and democracy:

  • e-government,
  • advocacy/activist domain,
  • civic forums (“where views are exchanged among citizens and deliberation can take place. This is generally understood as the paradigmatic version of the public sphere on the Net, but it would be quite erroneous to neglect the others”),
  • the parapolitical domain  (“airs social and cultural topics having to do with common interests and/or collective identities; political participation is always a possibility”), and
  • the journalism domain (from major news organizations to Indymedia and bloggers).

In the following weeks we will look at these domains and their intersections, and variations, and other possible domains that we detect. But…

And So Many Pitfalls?

For many, from issue-driven activists to main-stream parliamentary politics, the question has been about using media to promote a message, connect, persuade, mobilize… (Yes, a few of you have mentioned The Yes Men. Their infamous prank on BBC World, that costed Dow Chemicals 2 billion in stock value, is here. They’re also fundrising on Kickstarter for their next documentary.)

Yet, the question is not only about the message but also about the media and infrastructures that allow, support or restrict democracy and social justice. Accordingly, social justice movements have also focused on influencing mainstream content production, offering alternative sources and platforms, and reforming media systems (an extensive and insightful overview of the so called Media Reform movement here). Rapid technological development has both enabled as well as complicated the quest for democratic goals (see, e.g., this analysis of the Obama – Romney digital side of the battle).

So the medium and the message intersect in many ways, and cause (infotaining?) debates such this one:

(Mr. Morozov is the author of Net Delusion — and summarizes his approach in this TEDTalk on how the Internet strengthens dictatorships).

Others, such as the journalist/activist Rebecca McKinnon (here performing on TED), and authors Youmans & York (Dropbox) argue that a big part of the problem stems from “the design and governance challenges facing large-scale, revenue-seeking social media enterprises”. (For those interested in global governance questions, MacKinnon’s chilling take on the United Nations and its role in internet governance here). And hence projects like ICTDAsia, this wiki on secure use of VoIP.

Personal Democracy

Yet, we try.

Democracy is changing.

A new force, rooted in new tools and practices built on and around the Internet, is rising alongside the old system of money intensive broadcast politics.

Today, for almost no money, anyone can be a reporter, a community organizer, an ad-maker, a publisher, a money-raiser, or a leader.

If what they have to say is compelling, it will spread.

The cost of finding like-minded souls, banding together, and speaking to the powerful has dropped to almost zero.

Networked voices are reviving the civic conversation.

More people, everyday, are discovering this new power. After years of being treated like passive subjects of marketing and manipulation, citizens want to be heard.

Members expect a say in the decision-making process of the networked organizations they join. Readers want to talk back to the news-makers. Citizens are insisting on more openness and transparency from government and from corporations too.

All the old institutions and players – big money, top-down parties, big-foot journalism, cloistered organizations – must adapt fast or face losing status and power, and some of them are. That evolution is happening as some governments, political organizations, businesses and nonprofits begin to embrace participation and transparency.

The realization of “Personal Democracy,” where everyone is a full participant, is coming.

This is a part of the Manifesto of the Personal Democracy Forum, a TED-like “hub for political practitioners and technologists”. The topics of their video lectures showcase the diversity of takes on digital democracy (please do explore for ideas and inspiration, here).

Journalism Isn’t Dead

New manifestations of communities with the quest for democracy range from ICT4D to Open Source movement to Hacktivism, but arguably no other field/concept/idea/l has been as much discussed in public debates as (the future of) journalism. The question is not only about the self-referential nature of media, but the idea of the Fourth Estate, safeguarding democracy. And no media industry segment has gone through such a turmoil as visibly as newspapers, as this cheerful site demonstrates. At the same time, journalism has always been the target and the topic of media activism. Alternative, non-profit media have aimed at providing counter-balance to market-driven, mainstream journalism. (Community media, too, have been instrumental in this, albeit not so wide-spread and valued in Europe; the EU recognized their importance only relatively recently.)

Bring in citizen journalism, made so much easier with digital technologies. Bring in Indymedia. Bring in geographically silenced stories brought to life in Global Voices, an array of voices individual bloggers, and ways of arriving to news such as Scoopinion… C.W. Anderson (Social Media Reader Chpt 7, Dropbox) maps intelligently different (new) forms of journalism and their relationship to (people formerly known as) audiences, and democracy. And Clack (our guest-to-be) & Aufderheide (Jansen Chpt 4, Dropbox) broaden our horizons of new re-iterations of what public media can be in the social media age.

This all prepares us for Wednesday 21 Nov when we’ll take theory to praxis and (virtually) visit a journalism non-profit that is able to thrive, and create a global “community of audiences”, because of digital platforms. Details & reminder from Tijana. Incidentally, the name of the non-profit is Democracy NOW!


  • Please explore this blog and the texts mentioned in the blog (in Dropbox). Any reflections, questions, comments? Do post below.
  • Let’s being a crowdsourcing experiment on digital communities for social justice — around the world.  Many of social justice communities of the social media age are global, but some are local or national, or version themselves geo-politically.
  • We will begin to look at countries based on this global mapping study . Claim “your country” on our google doc. We’ll begin with the basics. In the next 2 weeks,

(1) gather basic info (you can download your country’s report from
(2) add questions (what could we ask about digital activism in these countries as  ‘simple answer’ category?);

(3) make comments when needed.

In addition,
(4) think of any more nuanced qualitative questions/cases/issues you’d like to address. And, when we begin to gather more information,
(5) think of ways in which we could visualize our mapping effort. You can add everything as notes to this document, for now. Here’s a very basic data map of the original project (just went live).

Also feel free to edit and modify the document any way you want to make it more user-friendly.

  • There’s a method to this madness. We are utilizing an existing “old-fashioned” research project as a basic source for information, and adding on. At the same time, we will, hopefully, engage in a simple simulation of targeted crowdsourcing and crowdresearch (something become a more and more common activist practice and hopefully creeping into academic contexts as well– We love them Hurricanehackers of MIT and their Couchsurfing cousin).
  • Any questions? Comment on the document or below, so we can share.
  • Deadline: Engage in 1-5 for the next couple of weeks, latest by Fri midnight Nov 23rd.
Posted by: Minna Aslama Horowitz | November 6, 2012

Week 2. Dimensions of Communities, Dimensions of Participation

[A word cloud based on your comments for Week 1.]

I. Dimensions of Communities

The comment thread for week 1 is incredibly rich and I don’t pretend to capture all of it here. But based on your discussions, we can map essential characteristics and dimensions of our moving target. In his book, Delanty discusses different kinds of communities, from political to postmodern, to urban to multicultural to cosmopolitan, to communicative — and to virtual. Your analysis includes all of them, and then some.

Something Old, Something New

As Anastasia noted, community is an ever-evolving concept, changing with the times.  (You provided a great conversation about the cultural connotations of the concept.)

But change is not a-historical. The territorial aspect, for example (formerly so important) still exists and evokes the sense of nationalism (or, what Michael Billig would call banal nationalism: The nation symbolized by popular culture, sports, flags, arbitrary signs.)

On one hand, as Chris’ opening comment and also Banafsheh remind us, the importance of the symbolic communities of our time is clear, but (1) one symbolic community and related communication ‘technology’ does not do necessarily away another (the death of television? the layers of communities, or interactive possibilities increase); and (2) in many cases the virtual still supports (rather than defines) the non-virtual, concrete, even territorial. Echoing Matt, the term digital revolution just might be a catch phrase. It’s media/communication (digital) evolution that we are witnessing.

Yet, there are societal, technological, cultural, political changes that shape of what we understand as communities. Anni’s poignant example show, echoing Castells, how globalization has stretched the concept of territorial.

But as Anni, Julian, and others (incl. Bauman) discuss, the other (contradictory but simultaneous) trend is often defined as individualization of societies. Where does that leave communities? Lauri’s interesting point about urban and cosmopolitan communities echoes the essence of the contractions that seem to define our quest to belong: The more global we become, the more localities tend to matter; the more urban and cosmopolitan we become, the more one’s hood, one’s ethnicity, etc. counts.

Kaisa puts it well: The global making the local “more communal”, like the city was making the town “more communal”? Does the media construct communities of the modern age the same way it was done decades ago, by comparison/dualism[Of ‘real’ and ‘virtual’]?

Particularly Virtual

So where does the above leave digital (‘virtual’) communities? Are they defined with specific characteristics? Lia’s comment highlighted the tension between the two views on communities. Some underscore the rise of individualism and utopian quest for communities, others believe in a kind of rekindled ethics of care. One typical characteristics seems be the decentralization of organization and governance of many virtual communities (Emmi) — an important issue if we consider questions of mobilization and action.

Then there is the question of volume (Annaliina)  – “there is most likely someone somewhere willing to give you what you need, whether it is advice on legal issues or tips on travel destinations at all times.”

Also, many means to indicate belonging are new: As Eva argues, even clictivism can be seen as a form through which the community enacts its boundaries. But Michaela reminds us about the symbolization of the boundaries between each community — no need to be institutional. The non-institutional nature is perhaps more fluid in many online communities than it could ever be in similar formations off-line.

At the same time, online communities are introducing new traditions of belonging — as traditions define communities (Marie Christine). (Of Yannick’s many relevant points, this is important especially in terms of our focus on social justice movements and causes in this course): Is there a new kind of solidarity forming in  social media have brought a new form of solidarity (online solidarity) next to, or instead of, organic and mechanic solidarity? Yet, where are the boundaries?

Laida’s comment echoes a decade of research that indicate that online relationships develop faster (and become more intimate quicker) than ‘real-life’ ties. But do they also die quicker (Case KONY2012, again). Another important characteristic, sustainability/durability (pointed out by Henna): How long does a community need to exist to become one? Is this idea changing online?

 Different, But Similar

Despite the characteristics ‘in the making’ of what virtual communities might be (and perhaps those will always be a moving target), some fundamentals  seem to emerge. Evelina highlights the basic question of interactivity (vs. the famous concept by Benedict Anderson of nations as ‘imagined communities‘ created by mass communication).  This may just enhance the sense of ”belonging and imagining social relations” (Anthony Giddens called that a kind of survival strategy in our late-modern, individualized world).  Svetlana’s empirical method of Google images highlights this brilliantly.

II. Dimensions of Participation

So what’s all the fuss about digital social media?  Petja condensed it: The idea of participation and sharing (or, ‘us’ and ‘others’ — not sharing). For social sciences, participation has always been an important topic, but in the good old modern times, often assessed as in, participation in the society, as a good citizens, paying taxes, voting, keeping informed through mass media. Hence: the importance of communication to democracy. Hence: The worried discourses about tabloidization of mass media, popularization of politics, and disillusionment/passivization of citizens — in the 1980s and 90s.

Enter digital media and participatory platforms. All of a sudden, Laura’s discussion on communities as chosen, and the questions —  “Could it be possible to belong to a community that would replace the society and to exist without being a part of a society at all” — don’t seem utopian at all. (In fact, a book very close to this idea was just published 2 months ago; the last chapter Peer Society for your pleasure in Dropbox and a related video for those interested.)

Related to interaction is the idea of commons (Johannes), shared resources, as the defining factor for a community is not as literal as it was 200 years ago. Some communications scholars have wanted to ditch the term public sphere and use ‘cultural commons’ instead, to describe the communicative community that (mass) media creates. But the idea of sharing is often central online. A poignant case or 2: Think about the open source movement  and, e.g., the licensing movement Creative Commons (more to follow).

Petja and Johanna (among others) discuss the passivity of belonging. Don’t people belong to communities involuntarily, too? And: Is there a ‘tipping point’ for passive participation?

((This made me think of the neighbourhood I live, in Brooklyn, populated by a very conservative sect of Hasidic Jews. This community has very clear markers and traditions that invite you to participate, from dress code to worship. Their means and methods of communication are explicitly targeted to them. And yet…

If you belong but don’t — want to — participate, perhaps there comes a personal tipping point. And in many cases, disengaging virtually is the first step in disengaging physically, territorially.))

What is participation, after all?

While interaction and  participation, have been catchwords in public, academic and industry discourses for quite sometime, little systematic analysis has actually been given to either theoretical and conceptual aspects or concrete opportunities and solutions that exist in the current media landscape. Cultural studies scholars, most famously Stuart Hall,  started the debate in the 1970s and 80s, discussing how audiences are active and, at least partly, interpret mass media content to their own needs (en/decoding). Fan scholars continued in the same vein and celebrated the creativity of those communities. But participation was often condemned to be personal, (of making do in one’s every day life, as Michel de Certeau said); close to nihilistic, not for common good.

Recently Nico Carpentier’s has schemed a more comprehensive sketch of what participation means. He distinguished different levels of access, interaction, and participation, and his categorization includes different forms of interaction (user-to-content, user-to-technology, and user-to-user) that in the level of production, mean abilities to use equipment, or to create content, and in the reception side, ability and skills to use equipment to receive and interpret content. Technologies in and of themselves don’t push us to form communities, to participate. Participation, then, is a more complex process, inherently linked with power of  ‘co-deciding’ (access, content production).

And here comes Shirky, mapping structures/dimensions of participation, as they apply to social media (Chptrs 2-6). He talks about a scale of participation in relation to values, in/through digital media/networks, from personal to communal to public to civic:

(1) Personal: participants and benefactors of participation are individuals; they form spontaneous, fleeing communities, for personal benefit (e.g., that others comment their uploads — Lolcatz; Tired of Bronco Bamma; or Johanie’s great point and illustration below — who’s the community for this venn diagram?).

(2) Communal: Collaboration creates communal value, but within that particular community (e.g., fan sites).

(3) Public: like communal but very open to ‘outsiders’ and ‘newcomers’, results also available to those who are not members (e.g., sites that focus on information on a topic, from rescue dogs to restaurant reviews).

(4) Civic: Like public, but the explicit goal is to improve society (e.g. moveon.orgthe charity Chris used to work for; or Ushahidi, the open source crisis mapping tool — see the Shirky video if you haven’t already; posted on Readings).

A question not asked, as of yet: How much do infrastructures, platforms, tools shape a digital community?

III. To Do List for This Week:

  • Read/glance through Shirky, at least 2,3, 6.
  • Check out the additional readings  on collaboration: Read from Social Media Reader Chpt 5 (THANK YOU Joanna for alerting us — I had scanned a chapter but the entire book is now open source, waiting for you in Dropbox). If interested, glance at this article on fan communities and digital activism; and the scanned Johnson chapter on Peer Society.
  • Read our Guest Blogger’s contribution (posted on HuffPost just for you!) — and ponder its very practical take (tactics) on online community building. Chris Abraham gives us guidelines on how to participate effectively. How universal are they? How goal-driven? Feel free to ask, comment, debate, contest — on HuffPost (extra bonus if you do!).
  • Big Questions: How to define and assess online participation? Think about how you would categorize and ecvaluate participation in digital communities. Does Shirky make sense? Can we/should we assess participation in terms of its ‘moral’ or ‘utility’ value — to society? Is Liking enough? Communicating enough? Awareness enough? Or is action a crucial factor? Can the benchmarks of strong online collaboration (Dropbox text) help in defining dimensions of digital participation?
  • And finally, think about how different technologies might play a part in these categories and modalities, as enablers of participation but also as setting boundaries to it.
  • Instead of writing a comment, do some empirical exploration and create a Pinterest or Storify  (or equivalent) visualization that illustrates you points. You can focus on one big question (above), or tackle them all by showcasing a particular case. Share your Storify link as a comment, with 1-2 sentences to orientate us to your theme. And do review, comment, ask, learn about others’ stories.

(If Pinterest or Storify are new to you, just explore and have fun. They are both very intuitive and simple visualization online tools to compile and collate material from the web to tell a story. Here’s a simple example of a Storify story I created, on Shirky and Sandy.)

Next time: Online Communities and Social Justice

Older Posts »