The mistake that people make is in thinking about social media as a way to build community. Some of you who have been around for a while know that not too long ago I was fixated with creating a Civil War Memory community. At one point or another I included Google Friend Connect and even a widget for the Civil War Memory Facebook page in the sidebar. Somehow I envisioned readers connecting with one another and continuing discussions in various online spaces. I now see this as completely misguided. There are no Online communities; in fact, it demeans the very concept of community.
In the end, social media affords the user the opportunity to build an AUDIENCE.
He gets excellent pushback from the commenters on this, and follows up:
I guess I would like to know what the difference is between a couple of people whining about my site and a community of interest or even a more robust notion of community. In the end I don’t see myself as fostering a community or taking part in one. Again, I see my readers as an audience, but an audience that I can interact with in different ways.
I find this really interesting—and admittedly, somewhat bizarre—in part because I started this blog not to get an audience, but to join a community. The blog was largely a home to give my comments elsewhere some context, to make me an identifiable and contactable character while I was out and about on the web. Readers are always conceived of as people who followed me “home” because I wrote a comment they found appealing—because that’s exactly how I read blogs.
For a counterpoint to Levin’s view, we can check out Ta-Nehisi Coates and a cute piece in The Economist. If you don’t read TNC, he’s known around the blogosphere for having good discussion in the comments, especially on tricky subjects like race. I don’t participate in the Open Threads over there, but if I remember correctly, the creation of the Open Threads, or at least doing them every day instead of intermittently, was a request from commenters to open a space to build community among people they enjoyed talking with. And they just held a meet-up, and are planning more.
The Economist piece focuses on unintended communities, with some nice quotations:
It’s somewhat like ignoring the vegetable drawer of your fridge for a year, then opening it to find a bunch of very grateful sentient tomatoes busily working on their third opera.
I have an unposted draft that claims people want to join cults—Apple, aerobics, football fans, bullying, etc. That’s a bit too snarky. But forming a community strikes me as a natural tendency of most of the people I run into online these days.