Being happily Confused about Communities

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):

Tönnies distinguished between two types of social groupings. Gemeinschaft — often translated as community (or even gemeinschaft)— refers to groupings based on family and neighbourhood bonds and ensuing feelings of togetherness. Gesellschaft — often translated as society — 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 Tönnies 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 Tönnies, such an approval is by no means self-evident, he is quite influenced by Thomas Hobbeshomo 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” (“Kürwille“): 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 — theoretically —, these two normal types of will are to be strictly separated; in applied sociology — empirically — 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.  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.

7 thoughts on “Being happily Confused about Communities”

  1. JP, I am REALLY happy at the cycles you have devoted to Tönnies; and, while I still think that the Wikipedia entries are not the best source, I appreciate their usefulness when one is on the road)! I think your current confusion derives from a lack of familiarity with Usenet history. I can appreciate that you were probably not part of that world; but, by all rights, someone like Rheingold should have been aware of these things. So, if he could not communicate them through his writings, then I think all the less of him for it!

    The fundamental truth that you hit on was that the communities existed before there was Usenet, but their members were spatially separated. As a result, to invoke Goffman-speak, their interaction rituals (which, of course, include conversations) were significantly limited. Usenet provided a technology to enable those rituals that was not impeded by separations in space or time. My own involvement was primarily with two of those pre-existing communities: cognitive science and music theory. In both cases Usenet had a major impact on face-to-face behavior at conferences, where conversations would not be both continued and initiated, then reflecting back into Usenet activity for the benefit of those not physically present.

    Note that neither speed nor ease-of-use had very much to do with community maintenance. Indeed, as I previously remarked, these were factors that ultimately undermined the communities when the Internet opened the floodgates:

    The music theorists reacted by building their own walled garden, which was serving as an excellent replacement for Usenet while I was still in that game. (I have not been there for a while, but I gather that is is still thriving.)

    I suppose what bugs me the most about that Rheingold quote is that he really does not grok that nature of the interaction ritual and the role it plays in how people engaged with each other, even then the engagement is mediated by software. Unfortunately, I just checked Wikipedia; and, while there is an entry for Goffman, it really does not address the interaction ritual side of his work. Perhaps I should take this as an opportunity to write something on my own blog (since I still do not really buy into the Wikipedia process).

  2. It’s just encouraging to see that the random use of the term “community” which dominantes the social network discussion all around sometimes remembers the origin of this term (original: “Gemeinschaft”) generated from Ferdinand Tönnies who had a very specific understanding of this phenomenon which doesn’t fit at all to most of the social networks at the moment. May be there is a small chance to build up a more continous flow of exchange of arguments concerning this point…

  3. Dr. Hellman, if you use the Search tool on this blog page, I am afraid you will see that the acknowledgment of Tönnies was a “flash in the pan,” which did not lead to the “continuous flow of exchange of arguments” for which you hoped. If you wish to give the process another try, you might check my own post at:

    The floor is still open for discussion over there, but it is not the sort of discussion the thrives in the blogosphere!

  4. Dear Stephen Smoliar, thanks for your attention concerning my interest on discussing the ancient contribution and actual relevance of Ferdinand Tönnies, the originator of the scientific “Gemeinschaft”-debate, to the current debate about building communities anywhere.
    I will read your comment which you recommend to me as soon as possible and then I will answer there again.
    Good bye Kai-Uwe Hellmann

  5. So, I don’t think the Gemeinschaft should be looked at as word for community, but rather as a way of characterising the nature of a given association. I would say that Facebook is not an association in and of itself, but rather, it is a platform in which associations and groups are formed, each of which can be characterized with being somewhat Gemeinschaft in nature or somewhat Gesellschaft in nature.

Let me know what you think

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