I was struck by the clear distinction between these two terms in the article by Zygmunt Bauman in the new Demos / V publication ‘An Anatomy of Youth’.
In his article ‘Belonging in the age of networks’ he differentiates the essence of these two terms. In short, he suggests that a community is more normally a group that you have membership of regardless of personal choice, and that you can’t easily drop out of… e.g. the locality that you grew up in, or your extended family etc. Such communities are often crucial in your identity-formation – often because you didn’t get the chance to avoid them: you were formed in the crucible of their personal and cultural forces whether you liked it or not. By contrast ‘networks’ are nearly always opted into for personal benefit of some sort. Their subject or identity appeals to you, and your choice to affiliate will more likely relate to your ‘chosen’ identity than the one that you developed like it or not.
So ‘social networks’ and ‘communities’ are not then synonymous. The former can be lightly entered into, tested, adopted to various degrees as suits you, and opted out of again. The choices remain your own, and by inference, their ability to ‘form’ you is slight as you can resist their force and take your avatar and mouse elsewhere if you don’t like the way it’s going.
By contrast ‘communities’ can’t be avoided. You have to stay with them, learn to negotiate and manage your way through them. Communities have politics where networks have cultures. I use those phrases carefully. Of course, communities have cultures as well as politics, but the words I want to stress here are ‘negotiate’ and ‘manage’. These two words are at the heart of politics. Politics is the activity of negotiating and managing the social order into the preferred version of members of an organised community (my definition). We need politics precisely because we can’t opt out. But we can opt out of networks.
What’s critical here is that we recognise the role of social networks in politics. They are not communities of the same order and they are not the place to learn politics through simply being a member. By contrast, school is. You can’t avoid school, and it is indeed a crucible of personal and social formation, not just a place of education.
Social networks can be a place for amplifying preferred choices into a consolidated force for action in the way that members choose. In this way they can be a great force for political intervention. But we shouldn’t revere then as an equivalent of ‘real’ communities. Young people in social networks are not learning politics by virtue of being members. Perhaps it’s time to be uncool and mention that…