The death of the digital community?

Banner for CEMThis post is my contributing chapter for the special Connected Educator Month project #edbooknz – an e-book launched by Sonja Van Schaijik. Many thanks to Rachel Roberts for her ‘warm yet challenging’ feedback:)

 “My seven year old daughter knows that her father congregates with a family of invisible friends who seem to gather in his computer. Sometimes he talks to them, even if nobody else can see them. And she knows that these invisible friends sometimes show up in the flesh, materializing from the next block or the other side of the world.” – Rheingold

These opening words hark back to 1983, when Howard Rheingold wrote the foreword for Granovetter’s (1983) research on the strong and weak ties that bind us in communities. Over twenty years later, we are still interested in how we work together as people, particHistory of online communitiesularly in the fluid, online/offline world in which many of us now exist. For many, the magic of ‘invisible friends’ online is what keeps us loyal to communities of people with whom, without digital technologies, we might never be able to connect.

We are also fourteen years on since Rheingold (2000) wrote his own book about the then-unusual ‘virtual communities’. Has the time come to put the prefix of ‘digital’ or ‘virtual’ out to pasture? This is the question at the heart of this discussion.


Community [noun]  /  com|mu¦nity  /  kəˈmjuːnɪti

What do you think of when you read the word ‘community’? A group of people coming together to help one another? A gathering for sharing ideas? A local neighbourhood of mutually support?

One of my favourite community is ‘NZ Spearos’, a group who come together on Facebook to discuss ideas about spearfishing (and I don’t even spearfish;). Heated debates on best practices for diving with a buddy, catch quotas and the merits of particular locations mark this active group out as a genuine community. And many of them have never met face-to-face.

making community software sustainableWhatever your mental model, a central theme of ‘community’ is one of reciprocity – some kind of symbiosis or virtuous circle in which one’s contribution supports the group and which is repaid in kind by the value generated by that same set of people. This characteristic of community is often termed as ‘social capital’; simply put, the investment of one’s time in social relations with the expectation of receiving something in return (Lin, 1999). The greater the social capital of an individual or community, the greater the chance for improved practice and gain. Many of us benefit from being part of communities, often several, focused on hobbies, work, sport, or local interests, to list a few.

To take community one step further, the seminal research of Lave and Wenger (1991) defined communities of practice as groups united around making improvements to an area of shared interest or practice, with a shared discourse and purpose.

So, what is enhanced – if anything – if this group is online? It might be argued that, regardless of the way in which we come together, be it digital or over the garden fence, it is the act of collaboration that is central, not the means by which we do it.

Is the term ‘digital’, in these days of ubiquitous connection superfluous?  In the definitions given above, the mode of coming together, digital or otherwise, seem irrelevant. In fact, the danger here is that the ‘digital’ gets all the emphasis, is privileged as somehow crucial to the definition, while the community focus is an after thought.


Digital community – or ‘digital death spiral’?

Increasingly, the word ‘community’ is bandied out quite loosely. I have heard people talk of their own Twitter followers, who may never have met each other, as ‘their community’ – or a collection of members of an online group. I even know of an example of ‘community’ being applied to collections of static resources online.

These days, when it seems easy to bust past the Dunbar 150 on Facebook, it can feel like we are surrounded by ‘digital community’, when in fact, much of the engagement can be superficial, fleeting, cheerfully brief, two-second clickbait, a ‘digital death spiral’ (Tanner, 2013). Perhaps these are the new ‘invisible friends’ that Rheingold referred to 30 years ago.

Social networks can certainly lull us into feeling like we are in a permanently humming community. But we must be careful not to confuse ’network’ and ‘community’. In a community, one’s relationship and commitment to the group is to the fore, and often the relationships are richer for it. Whereas, in a social network site, the individual user is at the heart of the structure and everyone experiences the network through a profile and set of connections that revolve entirely around them.

community and network

Figure 1. A comparison of the relative position of an individual member in a community and a social network (Melhuish Spencer, 2014)

Community is more than activity traps or busy-work on Twitter. A few posts to an online thread, a quick chat on Google+, or the share of a photo on Instagram doth not a community make. In the same way, handing out leaflets around the street doesn’t lead to change as much as a shared act of environmental conservation that brings real improvement to a neighbourhood.

TeachMeet screenshotThere is no doubt that the plethora of digital technologies, the ease with which we can connect and communicate through high-speed connection, mobile devices, integrated multi-function platforms (sign-in-to-everything-with Google, anyone?) have transformed the way we can come together. We have a 24-7 doorway to the ‘invisible friends’ with whom we wish to connect and work. Our conversations can be managed more flexibly with the time constraints lifted, and more inclusively, if I can choose my mode and media.  We can archive conversations, preserve them for new community members, review, edit, rewind, reflect. The reach of a collaborative act can be global – and the size of the community can be vast (or niche, or both). The result of cooperation in these digital community spaces can be amplified through the socially networked spaces through which we move – blogging, curating, Tweeting – can all spread the work of a community beyond its boundaries by the ‘connector feeders’ who move cross-community. The digital technologies ease that cross-over between groups and ideas.  There are certainly screeds of research papers that attest to the vital importance of specialised skills to support community facilitation and growth. Digital communities certainly appear to have special characteristics and opportunities, compared to a face-to-face, geolocated community.

Put simply, the use of digital technologies is the central enabler to allow people to connect and work together when they could never have done so otherwise. Even so, it is still the reason for connecting that is key here.

Perhaps 30 years ago we would have said that a virtual or digital community was remarkable, unusual, innovative. These days, though, for many communities digital technologies are simply a normal way to have a conversation. Indeed, for many of us, there is an expectation that we can access information or other members digitally as well as/instead of face-to-face. I would argue that the blended nature of many communities, part face-to-face, part online, is so normalised as to make the prefix ‘digital’ irrelevant.

Removing the phrase ‘digital’ refocuses us on the purpose and drive of working with others – and I’d also like to argue for a renewed clarity as to what ‘community’ denotes.


Purpose in the driving seat

Communities already existInstead, we should be looking for a shift from a focus on digital to a focus on purpose. Clay Shirky (2008)’s thinking is useful here. A shift from the digitally-easy acts of sharing and socializing towards actions that encourage cooperation and collaborative action that enhances, changes or positively shifts practice.  Let the technology merely be in service to those goals.

For those of us in education, the notion of community is what sustains our practice, digital or otherwise. Whether it is the community of whānau / aiga at the heart of our learners’ lives, or a community of educators with whom we reflect and gently stretch our understandings, beliefs and practice. It is incredibly hard to be an effective, adaptive modern educator if you are alone and isolated.

What the modern educator needs, in my view, is the chance to grow digital skills and competencies so we feel able to reach out to our professional communities, and then to give back and sustain that community over time.

If we must focus on digital technologies, let’s explore how they can quietly enable our communities to be more open, more inclusive and more accessible to all than in the past.

That is our challenge now.

Let’s talk about:

  1. How can we work together to design and grow our communities so technologies support inclusive, culturally intelligent ways of working together?
  2. How can we stretch our notion of online collaborative spaces to shift from sharing to collaborative action?
  3. How might we evolve our own online practices and confidence so we can make active contribution to the educational communities that feed our profession?


Image credits:

4 thoughts on “The death of the digital community?

  1. Karen, I wondered how you would tackle this topic given your recent studies and your involvement in #CENZ14 and on the VLN. I love the fact that you highlighted purpose instead of the digital. This has been an interesting project and already I can see how to refine it for a future challenge. Thanks for your overarching enthusiasm and guidance during this month.


Thank you for your comment. Much appreciated:-)

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