A large part of my work in the past decade has been fostering communities, both offline and online.
Community building is a bit like nation-building - in that it is very difficult to invent one from scratch, even if you know what you are doing. Moreover, some ideologies (especially, religions) naturally support the values required for healthy communities - others (like atheism) do not, and in fact, can be antithetical to the project. Looking back, I find that I both underestimated and misunderstood what it takes to foster healthy communities, and if I could do it all over again, I would do it quite a bit differently.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about what goes into the making of a good community or a bad one - and to what extent those factors can be deliberately cultivated. And given the various challenges to traditional, proximate communities, I am especially interested in the ways internet communities can fulfill this role.
This is the first of several short posts on my general musings on the subject.
Labeling something a community does not make it one.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point it became common practice to refer to literally every kind of human association as a “community”.
Every racial or ethnic group (no matter how large) is a community, every profession is a community, every college is a community, every subreddit, every facebook group, every conceivable hobby…..all “communities”!
And we are constantly reaching out to these alleged communities, uplifting them, even apologizing to them after a faux pas.
In politics, the word is useful because it allows one to play into identity politics or grant favor to special interest groups without admitting to doing so. Politicians pandering to a racial group sounds bad, but “supporting a community”? What could be more wholesome!
No doubt the warm and fuzzy feelings the word inspires allows it to be a useful political tool in more ways than one. From fake communities arise fake leaders, who can claim to be the voice of broad groups of people without actually having been given any real authority to speak on their behalf (and thus, not bound by any duty towards them).
A President of an organization that serves marginalized women - for example - must earn her position through experience or a dedicated track record of service, and can lose her job if she is found to be engaging in misconduct or otherwise harming the cause. A “community leader”, however, holds no official position and cannot be deposed by anyone.
The harm to the public discourse, however, is broader than that: by turning a bunch of labels into “communities”, we are advancing the creation of tribes where none might have existed. By habitually referring to mere traits or hobbies as “communities”, we plant the seeds of group consciousness (proto-tribalism) in the minds of those who share the trait.
The harm to individuals is deeper than that - especially to those too young and too online to have experienced richer, proximate communities. They may mistake mere descriptive labels for connectedness - investing their time and conforming their identities to them, in search of a sense of belonging that is bound to prove superficial and unsatisfying.
The truth is, despite the habitual over-usage of the term, far too many of us have only weak ties to any community, if we have them at all. Is the over-usage itself a consequence of the lack of experience with communities worthy of the name?
Interesting insights, thank you Sarah! This is pure speculation, but I wonder if this shift in language may be traced back to Dr. Martin Luther King popularizing the phrase “beloved community,” which he spoke about often. When working for my state legislature in the early 2000’s, I noticed African American clergy and other black “community leaders” who came to the legislature to lobby speak of “the community.” I noticed the elected leaders using the same terms, "the Community" and "Community leaders." This was not necessarily a new use of the word community, but it was new to me at that time. It confused me at first, but it became clear they were speaking specifically of the African American community, whose interests they were representing. Perhaps as the social justice warrior or successor ideology has grown and morphed into something entirely different from and antithetical to MLK’s vision, the term “community” (stripped of anything"beloved") has spread to every and any identity imaginable, resulting in more tribalism, more hatred, not less. MLK referred to ALL people by using the term “beloved community.” Here is a quote from an article on the King Center website:
"One expression of agape love in Dr. King’s Beloved Community is justice, not for any one oppressed group, but for all people. As Dr. King often said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He felt that justice could not be parceled out to individuals or groups, but was the birthright of every human being in the Beloved Community. I have fought too long hard against segregated public accommodations to end up segregating my moral concerns,” he said. “Justice is indivisible.”
I think the frequent use of "community" is, indeed, partly a result of the decline of a meaningful sense of community in many people's offline lives. I think it parallels the way political partisanship has taken on a religious feel for many Americans as traditional religion has declined in the US.
It might also be a form of concept creep, paralleling the spread of "security" after 9/11, and "justice" more recently.