There are many things I’ve been accused of over the years: being Confused is something I aspire to, so I’m pretty relaxed about it. Nevertheless, I take all comments seriously, seeking to learn from them. All of them. So, as you should expect, I’ve been taking a look at the Tonnies 1887 definition of “community”, and have been meandering through the attempted distinctions between “community” and “society”. But that’s for another day.
Right now what confuses me is something that interests me far more in the current context. Let’s take Howard Rheingold’s 1993 definition of “virtual community”, which reads something like this:
Virtual communities are: “social aggregations that emerge from the Net when people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships”
Let us then take the Tonnies definition of “community”, and here I quote from Wikipedia (it’s the most convenient place to quote from while travelling):
TÃ¶nnies distinguished between two types of social groupings. Gemeinschaft â€” often translated as community (or even gemeinschaft)â€” refers to groupings based on family and neighbourhood bonds and ensuing feelings of togetherness. Gesellschaft â€” often translated as society â€” on the other hand, refers to groups that are sustained by an instrumental goal. Gemeinschaft may by exemplified by a family or a neighbourhood in a pre-modern society; Gesellschaft by a joint-stock company or a state in a modern society, i.e. the society when TÃ¶nnies lived.
His distinction between social groupings is based on the assumption that there are only two basic forms of an actor’s will, to approve of other men. (For TÃ¶nnies, such an approval is by no means self-evident, he is quite influenced by Thomas Hobbes‘ homo homini lupus.) Following his “essential will” (“Wesenwille“), an actor will see himself as a means to serve the goals of social grouping; very often it is an underlying, subconscious force. Groupings formed around an essential will are called a Gemeinschaft. The other will is the “arbitrary will” (“KÃ¼rwille“): An actor sees a social grouping as a means to further his individual goals; so it is purposive and future-oriented. Groupings around the latter are called Gesellschaft. Whereas the membership in a Gemeinschaft is self-fulfilling, a Gesellschaft is instrumental for its members. In pure sociology â€” theoretically â€”, these two normal types of will are to be strictly separated; in applied sociology â€” empirically â€” they are always mixed.
Without even going into Tonnies’ core assumption (about the two basic forms of an actor’s will), what confuses me at present is the following:
Let us assume I belong to a Tonnies-defined real human physical community. Let us assume that the members of that community all join Facebook. What then happens? Here’s what I think:
Sometimes communities don’t just “emerge” in virtual environments. They pre-exist in physical environments, and, in relatively short order, migrate to coexist in virtual environments as well. Why do they do this? Because their virtual interactions can give them freedoms they never had, freedoms denied them because of disenfranchisement in one form or the other.Â Disenfranchisements that could be physical or social or financial handicaps.
That’s what I find different about Facebook, the sheer speed at which an existing physical community, built up by its members over time and with love and care, can migrate and coexist in a virtual environment.
I am fascinated by this theme of how a virtual community overcomes physical disenfranchisements, and by the way the physical community uses virtual tools and techniques to do this. It will therefore become the topic of my next post on Facebook and the Enterprise.