Communities Real and Imagined

John Naughton

One of the favourite phrases of the Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is "the Facebook community". It's a phrase that is also regularly parroted by his underlings, all of whom seem to be unaware of the absurdity of referring to the two billion people who use Facebook across the world as a community.

Facebook is many things, but a community it is not. It's a social network, which is something quite different. In a social network (online or off), people are connected by pre-existing personal relationships -- they're family members, schoolmates or university friends, work colleagues, business partners and so on. In general the connections are built one link at a time -- by connecting to another person. And the main reason people join an online social network is to maintain old relationships and establish new ones to expand their network. That's why so many jobseekers feel they have to join LinkedIn, for example.

Communities, on the other hand, both online and off, are much more complex social systems. That's because they consist of people from different walks of life who may have no personal connections at all, yet all belong to a particular community. A good example is the English village where I live. I am friends with some villagers, and know my neighbours pretty well. But there are many others in the village whom I don't know and with whom I may have little in common. I don't share their politics, perhaps, or their views about hedge-trimming or child-rearing. But there's no doubt that they and I are all members of the same community. And despite the fact that we may have very different worldviews, we all have to get along. And in general we do.

Online communities are generally very different from English villages. There are some obvious reasons for this: for example, their members may reside not just in different places but in different time-zones. The main difference, though, stems from the fact that online communities are made up of people who have joined because they all have shared interests, worldviews or politics. In that sense they confirm the power of homophily -- the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with similar others.

Facebook per se is not a community. But it contains many such online communities. I have a friend who until recently was not a regular Facebook user - he did have an account, but spent little time on the site. Then something happened that changed that pattern: he bought a fancy electric car which became his favoured new toy. And it turned out that there was a lively Facebook group run by other owners of this fascinating (and impressively expensive) vehicle. So my friend joined this little community and became a regular user of Mr Zuckerberg's service.

The problem with online communities is that the power of homophily means that they often turn into what the legal scholar Cass Sunstein calls digital echo chambers: virtual social spaces where people only hear comments and news that confirm their worldviews. This may be comforting for the people involved, but it might not be good news for democracy because it can lead to "enclave extremism". Commenting on an experimental study that he and colleagues conducted in Colorado in 2007, Sunstein concluded:

"As a result of deliberation with like-minded others, liberals became more liberal and conservatives became more conservative. On some of the largest issues of the time, discussions by like-minded group members fueled greater extremism, and increased divisions between liberals and conservatives. At the same time, both liberal and conservative groups became more homogeneous; deliberation significantly reduced internal diversity."

It's conceivable, therefore, that there's a connection between the increased political polarisation that we've seen in a number of Western democracies in the last few years and our tendency to huddle together in digital echo chambers. I was one of the many academics in Cambridge who was shocked by the Brexit vote. I follow 848 people on Twitter (I tweet as @jjn1), and I like to think that I am pretty discriminating in choosing writers and thinkers who are well-informed and diverse. On June 24 I went through that list and was mortified to discover that, as far as I could discern, not a single one of the people I follow supported the decision to leave the EU. Or, to put it bluntly, my personal online community turned out to be an echo chamber!

In a way, this little story encapsulates the great irony about the Internet. When it first appeared (the network we now use was switched on in January 1983) the Net inspired a wave of utopian hopes among those of us who were its early adopters. Here, we thought, was a technology that was truly democratising and empowering. It would enable anyone to communicate with anyone who had an Internet connection. Anyone could become a global publisher because, after blogging arrived in the 1990s, if you could type you could launch your thoughts on the wider world. It was a technology that would lift us out of our provincial, nationalistic, monocultural ruts, and enable a new cosmopolitanism.

The technology still has all that liberating potential, but things haven't worked out quite as we techno-utopians had hoped. As the MIT scholar Ethan Zuckerman outs it in his book Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, the technological capability to communicate with someone does not inevitably lead to increased human connection. Homophily has a lot to answer for.

Professor John Naughton is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) where he is co-director (with Professor David Runciman) of the Technology and Democracy research project. He is also the Observer's technology columnist.