Communities are built on shared stories, not communication platforms. The activity of people coming together in common cause – for arguments, activism, person-to-person exchange of expertise and experiences – has little to do with the CMS or social media used to do so. Our modes of communication are evolving, certainly, but it strikes me that the roots of community – real community – remain remarkably constant. That sense of belonging, of fellow-feeling, that comes from participation in a vibrant community is, as ever, firmly rooted in the realm of human connection first, even if those connections are made in digital rather than physical space. (Indeed, physical proximity matters less and less in the formation of communities, thanks to the ease of connecting with like-minded folks across great distances in real time. Everywhere is local online.)
The infrastructures of communication by which a group’s members engage one another don’t, in themselves, create communities. But look closely at the support systems and embedded interests of the platforms on which we assemble, and it’s just as clear how and where we house that human exchange – particularly online – matters deeply.
Who owns and operates the “free” social media platform your community uses for its gatherings? How is work and personal information you upload to your individual profile in a “community” database used by the website hosting it? Who moderates your conversations? Who created the algorithm that determines what is gleaned for the information feed you see from those you “follow”? And to what end is that data being shaped? If your community is using a commercially-owned, proprietary platform to conduct its conversations, who pays for it? Specifically, what (or who) is being sold in the process?
The various modes of communication we use now don’t, themselves, create our communities. But the media we choose for those interactions surely shapes them. Commercial media platforms are in the business of business: the for-profit social Web is designed with invisible fencing and incentives built-in, corralling and nudging its users’ energies and conversations (more or less adeptly) in profitable directions. There’s nothing necessarily evil about the arrangement. But we’d be wise to remember that when we gin up conversation around a community question on Facebook, mobilize around viral hashtags on Twitter, exchange “likes” and “shares” and clever GIFs on Tumblr, we’re effectively working someone else’s party.
For arts communities, in particular, issues of equity and access, inclusion and visibility in our shared stories are too important to leave in the hands of salesmen. I want to see more open-source platform creation, more web-savvy intention, from the code up, at the foundation of arts communities coming together online. I want artists and independent-minded cultural producers to build transparent, responsive digital spaces for themselves that might better connect community members in conversation, from pixels to pavement, in ways that reflect the values they hold in common. Our modes of communication, as conscious communities, need to reflect the shared stakes and benefits, arguments and activism that draw us together in the first place.
This essay was originally published in PHONEBOOK 4, (Chicago, IL: Threewalls, 2015).