Community media usage

As usual, good comments on my last post that you should read.

Anca picked up on my last point that one might be able to design the direction a community takes by designing the media interaction spaces for that community. But before trying to design something, I think it’s useful to observe my current and former communities and see how their media usage influenced their structure and interaction.

Community: TEP
Media spaces: Email lists, real world gatherings
Comments: TEP’s been using a couple email lists since before I was a freshman, and those email lists provide a level of background connection to the greater TEP community of alumni and friends of the house. As an alum who doesn’t live in Boston, I often only know the undergrads that post to the mailing lists – the others are invisible to me until I go visit. The TEP community is also obviously supplemented by regular gatherings. It’s unclear whether the mailing lists would be able to bind the community together if our community was not based in a living group so that many of us lived together at one point or another.

Community: nextNY
Media spaces: Email list, real world, wiki
Comments: The main interaction space of the nextNY community is the email list, but Nate Westheimer observes that nextNY is valuable as a social network because it spawns real world interactions. Charlie points out in a comment that the email list functions effectively because the community feels a sense of ownership in the list, and I don’t think that community ownership would exist without the regular reinforcement of actually meeting other people on the nextNY list, as people aren’t “real” when you only know them online.

Community: Ultimate frisbee games
Media spaces: Real world, sometimes email
Comments: Playing ultimate frisbee, both here in New York and back in San Francisco, is primarily centered on the real world interaction of, well, playing frisbee. We use email lists, but primarily for the purpose of organizing when people are going to be playing frisbee (somebody’s been posting about non-frisbee stuff to the NYC ultimate list and getting flamed for it). It’s interesting because the community is so focused on playing frisbee that I have spent hours in people’s company without learning their last name or where they work – I only know which throws they prefer and what routes they run on the field. I had similar experiences with singing in the chorus or playing volleyball in grad school.

Media spaces: Usenet
Comments: I spent a couple years posting on – I even co-wrote the first FAQ for the group. Because the community had a tight focus like ultimate frisbee, I learned how other atbvs posters thought without knowing anything about their lives. Because the interaction was purely electronic, I had no idea what these people looked like or did for a living, but we could still have endless discussions about the characters and writing on the show.

This list makes clear that communities with a tight focus can function as single purpose communities. I have several “ultimate friends” who I know nothing about other than I like hanging out with them on the field. A friend of mine used the phrase “party friend” yesterday to indicate somebody they liked hanging out with but wouldn’t depend on if they needed help. I guess that’s a reminder that friendships and social connections don’t have to be all-encompassing – one can interact happily in a limited domain without ever desiring to expand the interaction beyond that domain.

The other thing about the list is that it reinforces Nate Westheimer’s point that social software needs to “affect my offline life”. My strongest communities are the ones which either grew out of or are augmented by real life interactions. Purely online community interactions seem more fragile – when I dropped out of or out of playing MUDs, nobody reached out to me and asked where I’d gone.

I’m curious what other people’s communities look like and how you think the media used to communicate affects the interactions of those communities. I don’t know if we can come up with any sort of general observations, but I think it’d be interesting nevertheless. I’d be particularly interested about experiences with wikis, as I’ve never been part of a community that used one effectively – is anybody out there a Wikipedian?

5 thoughts on “Community media usage

  1. Community: CSUA (Computer Science Undergrad Association at UC Berkeley)
    Media spaces: wall, nwrite, motd, irc
    Comments: A small student group with their own UNIX box (called soda), the CSUA used the builtin UNIX utilities to communicate amongst themselves. They modified wallall and write to add more functionality, and they added a motd.public which was world writable and was concatenated to the regular motd on the machine. There was also a mailing list, but most conversation took place on wall and the motd. Later on, when a group of friends wanted to be able to talk amongst themselves in a slightly more intimate space than wall, one of them wrote his own chat program on the machine called “hoserchat”; this was later replaced by an irc server running on a CSUA alumnus’ machine. Today, us old fogies still login to soda and use wall and motd, but the current CSUA members are off somewhere newfangled i guess…

    Community: SF Bay Area lindy hop / swing dancing
    Media spaces: email lists, web, real world
    Comments: Events are posted on email lists and webpages, but mostly this community is entirely real world. Individuals keep up with each other in a variety of ways, but if you don’t go out dancing, you can’t feel like you’re still a part of the community.

    Community: Stargaze
    Media spaces: email list, real world
    Comments: Most communication outside of real world gathering is via the mailing list.

    Livejournal is not used as a community forum at all for me, but I use it to keep up with folks from all different parts of my life. Other social networking sites I mainly only visit when I get notifications that somebody has pinged me or wants to friend me or whatnot. Livejournal is the only place I really hang out. I guess I just don’t really get all the New Ways. 🙂

  2. In a measure of how long I’ve been thinking about these topics, I just remembered about this essay about virtual community that I wrote back in 1993 or something, where I talk about how communities form using such tools as email, MUDs, Usenet, IRC, and for MIT users, zephyr and discuss. Crazy stuff!

  3. I think your characterizations make sense, but they hugely simply a complex story, and I’d argue that the quiddity, the essence of the community is in that complex story. Yes, the tep community is based around shared experiences and around the eit mailing list. But I’d suggest a better model is a whole bunch of links between people in the community. For example, we could arrange names around the outside of a circle, and draw lines in (say) purple between all of the people on eit. Others might be connected with (blue) lines if they lived in the house together. Some people on that circle read your blog. Some people on that circle read my blog. I see you and Bats relatively regularly, Bradley occasionally, but I haven’t seen Seppo for years. I seem to see Speedbump every two years or so. So I think that your classification scheme (as all classifications schemes, indeed) is incomplete and can set you up to miss a lot of the story that you do, in fact, know is there.

    I’d also point out that there’s a shared part of alt.btvs that’s about the broadcast media itself; that’s a huge part of the communication and the community that seems un-ignorable. (If that’s a word.)

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