And a Community is…?

25 Jan

So what is a “community” exactly? What is a good definition of “community”? Who are its members, where does it exist, and what are its primary characteristics? Why is it important to understand the nature of community in the online world?

In “A New Perspective on ‘Community’ and its Implications for Computer-Mediated Communication Systems,” Amy Bruckman contends that “community can be viewed as a prototype-based category.” Beyond simple inclusion/exclusion rules, she approaches the idea of community based on whether its prototypical members exhibit a greater or lesser degree of similarity. Bruckman suggests that community is a “category,” in which membership is determined by how closely related a member is to the “focal members.” For example, she cites a study in which subjects responded that a robin is a bird more quickly than a penguin is a bird, indicating that a robin is a better focal prototype for the bird category than a penguin. While Bruckman notes that different cultures may perceive different focal members of a category, she says that empirical investigation is needed to understand variations within a culture.

Bruckman’s prototype-based definition may be a functional way to understand online communities, though not necessarily the most useful. First, I am operating under my own belief that online communities are effective, dynamic and viable, corresponding to legitimate global understandings of “community”. Most online communities transcend inclusion/exclusion rules, as mostly anyone can “join” an online community, even if the individual does not relate directly to it’s prototypical members. For example, even though iVillage is designated as a “women’s community,” it does not exclude men from joining or participating. Similarly, Facebook transitioned from exclusivity to inclusivity, starting initially for college students and now boasting more than 300 million members. Thus online communities can be considered “categories.” However, because of the general lack of exclusivity online, how useful is Bruckman’s prototype theory? I’m sure that Facebook can determine a “prototypical” user through market research and web usage patterns, but how useful or practical is understanding that community user within a massive population?

While exclusivity and membership rules help narrow the definition and characteristics of a community, as the world continues to move online, a prototypical online community member will likely be on the periphery of several communities (because of the relative ease in joining communities) in addition to those s/he regularly use. The rate of change among Internet usage will require a continually updated “census” (like USC’s Digital Future reports) to evaluate the characteristics of prototypical online community members, which I believe will remain dynamic – so can there be such a thing as a prototypical member? I’ll leave it up to the research scientists, but I’ll be watching.

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