In Meredith Gould’s new book, “The Social Media Gospel”, chapter 6 is titled, “Virtual Community is Real Community“. The book is a very brief introduction to social media as a tool for ministry, intended for church pastors who have just started to realise that they can’t ignore the internet, and community is a big theme. Once upon a time, Gould tells us, people distinguished between “virtual” and “real” – but not any more! Nowadays, virtual community is real community.
That catchphrase really bothers me. Here’s my problem: if “virtual community is real community”, what does “community” mean?
Now, there’s nothing new about the idea that “virtual community is real community”. That’s been one of the oldest arguments in internet studies, repeated endlessly at least since Howard Rheingold wrote “The Virtual Community” in 1993 (he’s put that book up online for you to read for free, if you want to).
According to Rheingold, the definition of virtual community was pretty simple: it was all about feelings. This is his definition, quoted again and again ever since:
“Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.”
That’s pretty much the same definition that Meredith Gould is using today. We know “virtual communities” are real, she says, when members “stay connected and are mutually supportive”. That’s it.
Here are three problems, I think, with this approach:
1. That’s just… friends, isn’t it? If “community” is just “some close relationships”, why bother using the word “community” at all? There has to be more to it than that. If we’re going to insist on using the word “community”, it has to mean something, and we have to explain why it’s important.
2. It’s not 1993 any more. When early internet researchers claimed that “virtual community is real community”, they were talking about groups forming in relatively small online spaces like email lists and internet forums. Today, the same arguments are being applied to vast social networks like Twitter and Facebook, where almost everything about the way we connect to each other has changed. The friendships we form through social media can still be supportive, but they might not be “community” in quite such an obvious way.
3. The way we connect to each other seems to be changing everywhere, not just online, and repeating the old promise that “virtual community is real community” doesn’t help us understand what’s really going on. Sociologists talk about a shift over time from a society based on fixed groups (family, neighbourhood, organised clubs, with clear boundaries and lots of social control) towards “the network society“, in which these groups are less important than the ever-changing networks or clusters of friendships we choose for ourselves. These clusters show some features of old-fashioned “community” (like close personal connections, lots of communication, and maybe some help and support for the people we really like), but not others (like a sense of belonging, or group discipline, or help and support for the community members we actually don’t like that much). If we just keep saying that this is all “real”, we forget to talk about what’s really changing in the world around us.
If you want to know more about how ideas of “community” are changing, including this shift from groups to networks, Heidi Campbell has written a great chapter in a book called “Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds”, published this year. I recommend that book to anyone who wants to find out what academics are saying about online religion – it’s the best introduction to the field. For the sociological angle, perhaps “Networked” by Lee Raine and Barry Wellman (published last year).
Now, it should be obvious to anyone that online friendships can be real, that social media can play a big role in the life of any community, and that communities can still form online in at least some places. I’m not questioning any of that. What I am saying is that the way we connect as groups (online and offline) has changed so much that Christians need to stop promising each other that “virtual community is real community”. That just doesn’t mean anything any more. Instead, we need to start thinking much harder about how we gather together today and why that matters, and we need to be prepared to admit that some things have been gained and some things, perhaps, have been lost.