I was talking with a group of information professionals about how participants in online communities communicate and wondered what the sociologist Norbert Elias would have made of the phenomenon. Elias was particularly interested in the power relationships between people and in groups. We were discussing the similarities and differences between living in a village and being part of virtual communities like, say, Facebook. What are the power dynamics in online communities and how will they come to shape the way we interrelate?
As far as villages are concerned, Elias and Scotson carried out a study of Winston Parva, a fictional name for a real village in Leicestershire, UK where there were three distinct communities. There were rich professionals living in big houses, a poorer, established community and an equivalent ‘outsider’ community in terms of class who had more recently moved in from slums demolished in London. The established community aspired to being more like the group of professionals and richer residents, and in doing so were keen to distinguish themselves from the recent immigrants. They talked themselves up, creating what Elias and Scotson called a heroic ‘we’ identity, at the same time as denigrating the incomers, or outsiders. They did so by means of gossip and stereotyping ascribing to the whole ‘outsider’ community characteristics of a small minority of more troublesome community members. What interested Elias was the dynamic of inclusion and exclusion that this set up, and the way in which, over time, the outsiders began to talk of themselves in self-denigrating ways. They had come to believe the derogatory things that were said of them, and to think of themselves as being ‘lesser’. Established communities are likely to try and police their own community members so that they do not undermine the social distinction which is being made between one community and another, and are likely to be just as hostile to ‘treacherous’ same community members as they are to outsiders. The dynamic of inclusion and exclusion is one which people have to work hard at to maintain.
A similar dynamic has been recorded between newer and older waves of immigrants to host countries, with older, established communities identifying more closely with the host society of which they are now part and as a way of doing so often talking in disparaging terms of the newer immigrants.
So what are the processes of inclusion and exclusion and power relating in on-line communities? Is it possible to establish a ‘we’ identity on a personal social networking page simply from a loose collection of people who know each other to a greater or lesser degree? How closely do theme or issue-based groups identify? It is clear from a recent report written about social networking by Pete Cranston and Tim Davies that young people do ‘hang out’ and chat in discussion fora and that social media are having a big impact on the way that people relate, engage in politics, become recognised, subvert power relationships and make meaning together. For Cranston, humans are social animals and will use any means, technological or other, to socialise better with others. At the same time, internet relating raises familiar issues of power and exclusion as a number of recent stories in the press highlight: people have used internet sites to bully and persecute others, to create rumours and gossip and to entrench existing power relationships . It has significant potential for amplifying processes of social recognition of both individuals and groups if we accept the principle that recognition can also be negative, and has become significant processes of meaning-making.
The internet poses exactly the same dilemmas around revealing and concealing, openness and privacy that all forms of social relating do. From the personal perspective, if someone wants to be my ‘friend’ do I have to accept them? Is it harder to accept than to say no, or do I just put them on hold and delay the decision? What am I prepared to put on someone else’s public message board for everyone else to see, or would I rather communicate peer to peer and just send a message as with e-mail? If I only have 20 friends, what does this say about me, particularly if I have friends with hundreds of other friends? With younger people, at what stage are they prepared to signal that they are ‘in a relationship’, even to the extent of putting pictures of them and their partner together at the head of the Facebook page? If the relationship then founders, how is the replacement of this photograph of a couple then negotiated? What photographs am I prepared to put on my site, and whose access do I restrict? How will I describe myself?
Perhaps one of the big differences between my own generation and what is termed ‘Generation Y’ is that they are constantly in touch with each other, through texts, e-mail, Twitter and wall-postings on each other’s Facebook pages. They still come together very much in groups, but are more likely to co-ordinate this activity via new media and to supplement this face-to-face coming together with gossip and photographs which are posted on-line after the event. In part we create meaning about the good time we had last night virtually.
It was Elias’ view that some social change is immediate and noticeable, while other change is so slow moving that we cannot recognise it until it becomes part of who we are. With the increasing practice of social networking it is possible to see many of the processes of social relating to which Elias pointed, but it is probably too early to tell how they will affect us long term.