I’ve recently published an article in a collective book in French about online influence. I’ve long been curious, researching and working on, with, and for online as well as offline communities, and I felt, as a Frenchman, that this word was not innocent, as it conveys a history of more than 200 years and a very specific political model.
The common point between Starbucks’ logo, the Arab spring and San Francisco international waters is the rise of these (online) communities. Internet, and more recently social media, did not create it, but allowed offline communities and people with a common interest or cause to amplify their message, to better organize, to connect with each other and to recruit new members.
“Community” as the basis of the US political model
The concept of “community”, as we see it everywhere on the web, is clearly an American one. The Pilgrim Fathers who in 1620 left England for the Netherlands and then the New World are a community-driven group, with one purpose: freely practice their beliefs.
On the longer run, the federal motto “E pluribus unum” reflects perfectly that the identity of the US is a juxtaposition of community (of belief, gender, race, interest) that we can find in the successive immigration waves (English, Irish, German, Polesâ€¦).
Madison and the Founding Fathers of the US Constitution did create a political model that balance power between communities (federal and state, but not only), not allowing in theory any of these communities to rule over the other. The 1960s will confirm this model with the rise of identity claims and the Civil Rights movement, but also the Queer & Gender theories, or Environmentalists. The community is, in the US, what gives a meaning to life in society, quite far away from the individualist representation one may have.
France: a community “une et indivisible” (one and indivisible)
At the same time, the French Revolution of 1789 is struggling with a civil war made of aristocrats and loyal followers of the king who side with the old monarchies of Europe, lead by Prussia. When the French Republic is proclaimed in 1792 (not even one year after the US ratified its Constitution), it is described as “une et indivisible”, as a way to guarantee no sub group will threaten it anymore.
Interest groups (religious, professional, local, foreigners) won’t be able to be represented at a national level. This cement of the Republic which meant to build a unified country has remained up to our days, when it’s now preventing any recognition of community-based movements. The individual, if he wants to enter the public space, has to get rid of its differences, to stick to the common credo of libertÃ©, Ã©galitÃ©, fraternitÃ©.
Meritocratic institutions such as the grandes Ã©coles will help create a centralized and homogenous body of civil servants and engineers. Teachers schools are called “Normales” and engineers are named “Centrale”, try to beat that
Recent discussion on laicity in France, due to a growing population of Muslim (now fully French after 2 or 3 generations) activate these old tensions, with a result of excluding as much as possible all signs of belonging to a religious community (veil, cross, sikh knifeâ€¦)
Birth of the Internet as a tool for the research community
This quite long story of what communities were in the US and in France is at the root, if we may say, of the Internet. Even before this, modern ways to communicate made the tension between the American and French political models visible.
The French telegraph was mostly a state-owned network to enhance the capability of the military, when the American telegraph was open to private companies as soon as it worked, and made the fortune of the first stock exchange companies.
Internet, in the same way, is seen as way to enhance action, collaboration. In the 70s, ARPANet, supported by the US army, becomes a network for researchers to work better together, with the first links made between UCLA and Stanford, then the West Coast. Act I of the Internet is organically participatory.
In the 80s, the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) is the first “online community” that draws attention, with Howard Rheingold, one its main members, coining the term of virtual community as “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”Â
Social media in late 90s and 2000s just gave more ways and tools for more people to voice, share with different degrees of participation, from posting to commenting, rating, uploading, mashing-up, etc.
Online communities & social media: when (part of) the users are in power
Online (or virtual) community doesn’t really gives the full impact of what’s happening these days, as “virtual” or “online” is still perceived as opposed to “real”, “existing” (when communities are partly made of people knowing each other: friends, colleagues, datesâ€¦)
So the way we understand “community” is a group of people sharing a common interest, on or offline, not based on a single site but a network of platforms, apps, sites, events, with the will to have an impact on a given process (political, marketingâ€¦) with a capability to produce a good (content, mobilization, etc).
The population of a community would not be equally active (from lurkers to the “active minority”), but would reward activity (top users, power sellers, new rights such as admin or moderator for older or most active members), and has a full scope of possible actions that allows a greater number to participate (from the basic “Like” to setting up a full website with content and sharing, say).
This community, based on professional as well as amateurs participants, is disrupting traditional economies in almost every industry, bits by bits. Take a look at crowdfunding with Kickstarter, for instance (381 million dollars raised in 2012), crowdsourcing with My Starbucks Ideas generating more than 100 000 ideas just for new products), human resources and recruitment, customer service now “social”â€¦
Toward a world where communities replace nation-states?
Let’s take a look at what is coming, with for instance the National Intelligence Council report on The World in 2030 (website here, summary by myself here). Some key trends will only accelerate the disintegration of nation-states (debt-burdened, unadapted to new threats and too slow to react in a connected and mobile world) and the liberation of the individual (more mobile, more wealthy, less attached to family, state, religion, unions).
Immigration and mobilityÂ are on the rise everywhere, with some countries having very high rates of foreigners residents (Costa Rica has 10%, Canada 18%â€¦). Marriage and family is no more a dominant paradigm, with 5-10% single households in Africa, Asia, Middle-East or South America and up to 30% in the US and Europe.
As traditional institutions for socialization go backwards, new ones come to provide a sense of identity to individuals. Communities, with the help of online & social media tools, give plenty of possibilities to join people with shared characteristics (race, gender, age), interests (music, sports) or projects (3D printing, crowdfunding).
More and more companies take advantage of this community trend, such as AirBNB or Uber, even if they break local laws in some cities which still protect their traditional travel and transportation industries (read this great piece on “Peer to peer hucksterism” for a critic of these startups)
Other initiatives are also taking other part of the old nation-states power. BlueSeed, for instance, is a project to build boats that can welcome research and startups in international waters, out of the jurisdiction of any state (always criticized for their visa policies).
Community is not something new, but internet technologies and social media, not even talking of mobile, are enhancing, developing and making it still more important. This structural trend is one big factor that make industrial or even service based nation-states getting older everyday.