Tweeting alone: Is it the end of community (again)?

“People wonder about the absence of what used to be, while new forms of community have slipped under their radar scopes” – Wellman
The other day I was checking some references on online communities in preparation for a class. I found neat definitions of community, general consensus around the characteristics of online communities, and a sense of progression in understandings of community boundaries from being strictly delimited to being more “fluid”. Researchers have observed that notions of social bonding, social interaction, and communal needs have changed dramatically over a short period of time. These changes are frequently attributed to the rapid expansion of information and communication technologies and to the broad social changes promoted by them (or vice-versa). In accordance with the dominant view on contemporary community literature, Delanty (2003) notes that communication technologies have reshaped what is meant by the term ‘community’. He defends that ‘place, locality and symbolic ties are being drained off any content, and in their place are more fluid and temporary forms of social relations sustained only by processes of communication outside of which they have no reality’ (168). In online social networks, for example, individuals keep at reach a vast collection of acquaintances with whom they can interact without much effort. Interactions, is this case, consist of short messages written in ‘walls’, actions played with avatars, or the exchange of virtual gifts. Here, what creates and sustains a communal feeling among participants is a shared reason for communicating, combined to norms and protocols, and based on interactions that happen on the internet over time on a given platform(e.g. a website).
However, as my students and I noticed, it has become increasingly harder to identify such online communities. How does one set boundaries around a group of individuals interacting online when they move from discussion forums through chats, blogs, IM, Facebook, Twitter, podcasts, texting, Flickr, YouTube, back to Facebook, and connect to different people in each of these platforms?
Online communities are spreading and fragmenting, just like the geographical communities of the past. As Americans bowl alone, Brazilians type to themselves on a deserted Orkut. In 2006, the 50 most visited communities on Google's social network Orkut totaled more than 37 million members and received almost 1,3 million daily visitors. Although Google has been cautious in revealing the network statistics, a little browsing suffices to show that what was once a vibrant platform for online community formation now looks more like an abandoned alley. However, in observing this I do not suggest that we fall on the nostalgia trap. That could lead us to miss the “new forms of community” mentioned by Wellman, which might be forming around you as you read this post.
For example, mobile phone usage has made connecting to certain platforms easier that others. We now find people interacting through Foursquare and Instagram more than on discussion boards. Finding community, then, might be a matter of looking at the right places – or the right online platforms. However, what sort of community shall we find, once we are able to identify where the "online people” currently gathers?
Computer-mediated communication is changing with increased mobility – we communicate in a way that is faster, more fragmented, and more on-the-move than ever. Synchronicity became more relevant than it was in the early days of the internet – we want to connect to anyone, anytime. We want to know “what’s up” and we don’t want to wait to know it. We link our profiles one to another and seamlessly move across platforms to complete a social interaction. E-mail is considered “too slow” by most members of the millennium generation. If we think about these characteristics – speed, movement, change - we can notice a striking contrast among them and the way we usually think about community. Our way of conceptualizing community has systematically excluded “movement.” To the exception of entry and exit of a community, which are mostly treated as one-time, highly consequential events, not much has been written or discussed about how people move in, out, between or within communities. There are exceptions, such as Kozinets’ analysis of how community members move from newbies to insiders as they develop more social ties within the community and the activity around which the community is centered gains more importance to them. In general, however, our understanding of community participation has been mostly static. If we make an attempt to focus on change and movement instead, we can see how online communities have adapted to the technological and social changes – and reconsider whether what we’ve been struggling to find online has disappeared or still exists, albeit in a different format.
Bernardo Figueiredo, a post-doc at the University of Southern Denmark whose research focuses on the how global mobility impacts consumption practices of global cosmopolitans, introduced me to the “new mobilities paradigm” that is becoming popular within the social sciences.I have since been thinking about the implications of this paradigm to research in online communities.
In a fundamental article for the new mobility scholars, Sheller and Urry discuss methods for mobility research – and point to some advances on how to conduct ethnographies of mobile communities. These include “mobile ethnography” which involves participation in movement. From this approach, walking with informants, following them, and accompanying them are the key modes of participation. Under these conditions, field notes must be particularly attentive to time and space dimensions, registering variations of encounters with informants in multiple places. In my dissertation research, I used a similar approach and combined ethnography to netnography and followed my informants as they moved, geographically, back and forth from one city to another and from one country to another in order to find caches and meet fellow participants. I also followed participants online as they moved from discussion forums through chats, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, podcasts, Flickr, YouTube, and from website or app to another.
I found that these community members never stop, nor go somewhere to be “in community” and engage in the social and cultural activities we are interested in observing. They do so wherever they are, with whoever happens to be available. The task of observing and participating in such a moving swarm requires energy, tenacity and patience.
I found that following (or moving with) my informants across platforms produced data in multiple formats, some of which have no equivalent in traditional ethnographic research and require new definitions (e.g. “likes” on Facebook; albums on Pinterest; Youtube videocasts; or the brief and broken text of “tweets”).
Moreover, new social media platforms emerge every day that create new challenges for researchers. Each social media platform demands a particular set of skills to create and evaluate content (making, editing, and uploading videos for Youtube vs. writing succinct posts for Twitter, for example). The networking etiquette and interaction features also differ between platforms, and researchers must be aware of these particular aspects in order not to put themselves, or their informants, in awkward situations. Is it be better to “friend” your informants on Facebook or to subscribe to their updates? To make matters more complex, conversations between participants and the development of collective action may happen across platfomrs, such as when participants answer to a “tweet” with a comment on a website the “tweet” links to, or when they add on Facebook their impressions of a Youtube video shared by a friend via e-mail. As I found by following my informants online, the social media principle of authenticity applies to social media research as well.
In order to fully participate in social media, researchers may need to disclose more personal information than they are comfortable with. Although privacy filters and account management features are increasingly allowing users to take control of who sees what in their social media profiles, managing additional research profiles or particular privacy settings only adds to the already substantial task of the social media researcher.
My research experience with online communities in the social media era suggests that, if once netnography was seen as a shortcut that would provide researchers with fast and easy access to all the data necessary to understand and explain a culture or community, this is no longer the case. As the complexity of the social media available to consumers increases, netnographies will be the task of research teams, who will be able to manage finding, tracking, and interacting with individuals who are everywhere, all the time, making culture. Researchers working in teams can divide the task of participating in different social media platforms, or of observing and interacting with fewer informants in their online activities across platforms. Research teams can use the same social media platforms to discuss and integrate data – and international teams could work around the clock to avoid missing important data among the immense volume of short-lived content that is posted, read, and shared online.
In this sense, what the new mobility paradigm proposes – following people or objects instead of attempting to identify one single place/space where a community is supposed to gather - might be a good idea. This “research in motion” shifts the focus of our attention from communities to networks.
Networks are flexible arrangements. They grow, shrink, move, and vary according to the connections individual members form to each other and to external elements. These connections are formed through fragmented and cross-platform interactions. Therefore, it is harder to identify and study networks than groups, for the researcher will need to engage in the same activities network participants do: she will need to “actively search, maintain, and mobilize [her] ramifying ties, one-by-one, to deal with their affairs.” Nevertheless, this might be just what it takes to find community in today’s web.