My girlfriend lives on a commune, or, to be more PC and less 1960s, an “intentional community” in Southern California. The social glue that links the residents are a non-denominational spirituality, inexpensive/free living, shared work, collective food production and sharing, and “community.” From what I can gather, residents share a desire to link individual with universal consciousness, connect to nature through devotional work, and uphold an emotional honesty. The more humanistic or less numinous amongst the residents say “community” is the reason they live here. For these individuals, this commune’s attractions are the shared responsibilities and personal relationships. I am here now enjoying a kale and fig salad and handpicked/squeezed orange juice from the orchard (she is the reigning queen of the organic farm here) and entertaining research ideas.
In the 1990s there were a few anthropologists working on the American commune. These studies focused on history. Examples include Don Pitzer’s cross-cultural utopianism and developmental communalism and Susan Love Brown’s ethnography of a yogic community and her accurate description of the importance of generations for the growth of New Age religiosity. Honestly, the history of the American commune doesn’t interest me as much as the future of small-scale socialism. As a media anthropologist, I want to see how this bricks-and-mortar intentional community relates to the taste and affinity cultures online. How to create analogies that move between this commune and digital socialism?
Skeptics of social media like Andrew Keen and Neil Postman agree that there is a fundamental and substantive difference between real and virtual communities. Something profoundly human is lost in the virtualization of relationships. Personally, I tend to see social media as augmenting my strong friendships, extending my informal friendships, and providing opportunities for new friendships. Regular use of social media affirms or complicates preexisting relationships, provide opportunities for the creation of new networks, while creating something perhaps unprecedented: virtual communities. These virtual communities could be seen as historical extensions of communes, political groups, audiences, fan bases, and other communities unified by analogue media. However, in some ways they might also provide for the invention of new sociality. Clay Shirkey, Henry Jenkins, and danah boyd expand on this generative thesis.
As distinct as they are materially and physically, it is difficult to textually code in a single word the differences between “real” and “virtual” communities. Cultural relativists like anthropologists are rightfully wary of “reality” and how “real” creates “unreal” communities. So “real” won’t work. What about “embodied?” Engagement with social media at a laptop isn’t the most active of corporeal engagements but it is nonetheless embodied. Will “symbolic” community work for the “virtual?” In-person engagements are mediated by fashion, language, body movements, and other symbolic forms of communication. So “embodied communities” won’t work for the “real.” The terms “mediated” or “symbolic” won’t work for the “virtual” which we know isn’t just virtual but also physical. Recourse to archaeology won’t work because virtual communities produce many tangible artifacts and a substantial infrastructure. I will use in-person to describe those person-to-person interactions in shared tangible space and online communities to describe the digital relationships knowing that this definition is leaky.
So here’s the pitch. A comparison between this commune and a virtual community could provide evidence for what are the differences between in-person and online communities. It will be necessary to locate and work with a vibrant virtual community that is networked via social media and who share a set of ideological beliefs or a division of labor. A Facebook group that interacts around political or religious ideas would work. The primary data will come from an identical questionnaire that will be filled-out by both the residents at the commune and the participants in the virtual community. The correct drafting of this instrument will be necessary to elicit evidence about what differentiates and unifies the in-person and online communities.
The most important point that unifies this intentional community and social media communities is “intentionality.” Both populations elect to be a player in the chosen community. They are not born into it by their gender or generation nor are they forced into it by circumstance and history. Intentionality is enshrined in the very title given by members of this “intentional community.” Communes, despite having ideological ideas about nature, consciousness, and social work going back to the 17th century, reflect one of the emergent qualities for the creation of new online communities. Doubters could see intentionality as the social fabric for community development as but an extension of the consumeristic mentality that prioritizes individualism and a shopping mentality taken towards social formation. Regardless of the connections between intentional community development and capitalistic interpellation, intentionality as a force for community growth is a frame through which we can observe and critique the formation of numerous cultures of affinity, competency, and taste both in-person and online.
What would be a good online community for comparison? Are there any precedents for this research?