Archive for October 22nd, 2009

This week, I have mainly been reading and thinking about virtual ethnographic field sites and communities. It’s got me trying to define ‘community’.

At the end of this post is an extract from a book by Clay Shirky. I like his robust defence of bloggers against those  who denigrate them (yes, I’m talking ’bout you Brabazon!). What’s interesting in the context of this week’s discussions is the distinction he makes between audiences and communities. A community, he argues, is defined by what he calls a ’social density’; an audience, on the other hand, has ‘fewer ties’.

Here’s the Shirky extract in full:

… dozens of weblogs have an audience of a million or more, and millions have an audience of a dozen or less.  [...] And it’s easy to deride this sort of thing as self-absorbed publishing – why would anyone put such drivel out in public? It’s simple. They’re not talking to you. [...] We misread these seemingly inane posts because we’re so unused to seeing written material in public that isn’t intended for us. The people posting messages to one another in small groups are doing a different kind of communicating than people posting messages for hundreds or thousands of people to read. More is different, but less is different too. An audience isn’t just a big community; it can be more anonymous, with many fewer ties among users. A community isn’t just a small audience either; it has a social density that audiences lack [emphasis mine]. The bloggers and social network users operating in small groups are part of a community, and they are enjoying something analogous to the privacy of the mall. On any given day you could go to the food court and find a group of teenagers hanging out and talking to one another. They are in public, and you could certainly sit at the next table over and listen in on them if you wanted to. And what would they be saying to one another? They’d be saying, “I can’t believe I missed you last night!!! Trac talked to you and said you were TRASHED off your ASS!” They’d be doing something similar to what they are doing on LiveJournal or Xanga, in other words, but if you were listening in on their conversation at the mall, as opposed to reading their post, it would be clear that you were the weird one. (Shirky 2008: 84-5)


Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations. New York: The Penguin Press