“‘Community’ makes everything sound better”

“Community” is derived from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French communité, meaning, primarily, “joint ownership.” A community, at least in theory, is a site of collective decision-making; it is maintained by the people who built it, for their own benefit. It monitors itself and invests in its own health. It rewards participation with a real stake in the common good. It’s no wonder, then, that community tends to strike us as a positive thing; the Welsh Marxist theorist Raymond Williams once wrote that the word’s most salient attribute was that it “seems never to be used unfavorably.”

There’s an association that still lingers between a “community” and a physical location — the idyllic small town, say, or the utopian village, real or imagined. It evokes a cozy, friendly, simple place in which people live in easy harmony and cooperation, each with a role to play, each mattering to the whole.

But the countless, ever-multiplying communities of today are something different: not collections of humans functioning in unison but random assortments of people who do the same things, like the same things, hate the same things or believe the same things. Life online is absolutely full of communities. There are fan communities, hobbyist communities, communities for users or enthusiasts of every consumer product imaginable. Every interest, every circumstance and point of identification, it seems, benefits by gathering under this feel-good umbrella word, which instantly puts a friendly gloss on every activity. People who interact are a community. People who don’t interact but share some quality or belief become a community. People who are lumped into communities by other communities are communities. “Community” makes everything sound better. It makes “the activist community” sound approachable; it makes “the skin-care community” sound important; it makes “the Christian community” sound inclusive and kind; it makes “the medical community” sound folksy and skilled at the bedside; it makes “the homeless community” sound voluntary; it makes “the gun rights community” sound humanistic; it makes “the tech community” sound like good citizens.

The tech community, of course, is partly responsible for this explosion. Platforms like Facebook, which exist for the express purpose of “creating community,” turn out to be in the business of exploiting the communities they’ve created for the benefit of those outside (the business community, the strategic communications community, the Moldovan hacker community). They invite members to “participate,” but not, in the end, to make decisions together; the largest rewards, and the greatest powers, stay private. The company lays claim to everything of value that can be extracted from the assembled group. Nobody feels any personal kinship with a “community” of billions of fellow Facebook users; only people who work for Facebook would ever describe things this way. But this communal language maintains the illusion that we’re all in this together, working for something that will benefit us all — neatly keeping the focus on the things being “liked” and “shared,” rather than the ones being mined or sold.

Carina Chocano, “Group Think”, The New York Times Magazine (22 April 2018), 10.