My dominant response to Clay Shirky’s Sharing Anchors Community is to apply the notion of ‘sharing’ to the social media sites Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. I have drawn from the text several notable arguments that Shirky exhaustively presents. The concept of community is often theorised in regard to digital behaviours. The notion of ‘community’ online is something which has been discussed by several scholars, most notably Howard Rheingold. Community, in a virtual world can be defined as:
‘Social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on these public discussions [using the Internet] long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.’
Rheingold, 1994: 5
The example of a sharing service that Shirky utilises within this chapter was certainly a popular platform six years ago, however in the time since Here Comes Everybody I question whether the points raised are still relevant in 2014.
Shirky utilised the ‘Birthday Paradox’ to demonstrate complexities that may be present within groups. Interestingly my immediate reaction to this concept was to apply this notion to the complexity of Twitter. As a scholar I am interested in the use of Twitter for two particular trajectories: mental health discussions and political practices. Fuchs suggests that Twitter offers space for debate, facilitating traditional digital spatial norms while offering large-scale discussions. ‘Twitter revolution claims imply that Twitter constitutes a new public sphere of political communication that has emancipatory political potentials.’ (2014: 180). If I was to undertake research into Twitter usage within politics then it is plausible that this would be a highly complex avenue to explore. Politicians, political parties, and members of the public are all able to use Twitter as the public sphere that it is implied to be. These different types of contributor may argue different perspectives, heightening the chances of a highly-active, potentially oppositional debate. These logistical assumptions that I am making are to highlight how Twitter offers digital space to facilitate what Shirky entitles the ‘grim logic of group-complexity.’ (2008: 28)
Admittedly I found Shirky’s metaphorical explanation of group dynamics to be slightly extensive – yet Shirky states that ‘as a group grows to even modest size, getting universal agreement becomes first difficult, then impossible.’ (2008: 27) I feel that there is truth in this testament; though, it could be portrayed as an observation, without any clear evidence. To consider this statement in relation to social media I question whether online communities offer an example of the potential difficulties that Shirky implies to be present within groups.
Social Formations from Media Sharing
The photo-sharing service Flickr is an example of utilising social media sites as a tool for establishing connections. Shirky discusses the 2005 London Transport bombings, and how Flickr hosted images of the bombings before traditional media outlets. Users began sharing and commenting on the photos to contact others, express their concern and to show their messages of support. Flickr made these images of the tragic incident available for reuse, ‘creating a kind of symbiotic relationship among various social tools’ as suggested by Shirky. (2008: 35) The underlying theory behind Shirky’s discussion of Flickr places services such as Flickr in the role of sharing content for others to gain; whether this is gaining in the form of emotional response, or reuse of the content. Shirky depicts this as the group activity being transformed from ‘gather then share’ to ‘share then gather.’
The 2004 Indian Tsunami is another devastating event in which Flickr was used for dissemination of information. In this instance I find it interesting the use of the term ‘community’ interesting when Shirky is addressing one particular image of a missing child, when the child was found to be deceased Shirky states ‘the community that had formed around the photo posted expressions of grief and condolences for the family.’ (2008: 36) I question if the term ‘community’ denotes the activity that occurs online during disasters such as the examples presented in Shirky’s text; reflecting on Rheingold’s (1994: 5) depiction of online community as discussions with ‘sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships’ I feel that the sharing of content on Flickr does not create ‘community.’ I believe it may create feelings of belonging; or a means to express condolences. Individuals are able to express their feelings toward the disaster through commenting on Flickr photos; this, in my opinion, is similar to watching footage of a devastating event on the evening news which provokes an emotional response – simply commenting on an online post does not create community in this sense.
Though interpretation of the arguments and discussions raised within this text has allowed me to consider ways to apply these notions to further research I find it ironic that Shirky, discussing the complexity of groups, uses such complex metaphors to testify his theories.
How individuals interact online, or how they present themselves to others is a popular debate amongst new media scholars. Understanding user-behaviour, such as identity-making; identity is a highly contested topic alongside authenticity. Ellison et al (1997) noted that identity can be constructed in an online world; this construction can be comprised as well as constrained. User-identity may not be authentic; however user-behaviour can clearly be observed by virtual ethnography (Hine, 2000; Markham, 2005; Murthy, 2008) or other qualitative research methods.
Shirky draws upon the work of physicist Philip Anderson to explore the behaviours of individuals in groups, citing his statement that ‘more is different.’ Anderson, as discussed by Shirky, noted that complexities can be exhibited in anything from atoms to people. Shirky applies this notion to his own arguments; ‘this pattern of aggregates exhibiting novel properties is true of people as well,’ more distinctly, ‘individuals in group settings exhibit behaviours that no one could predict by studying single minds.’ (2008: 28) My perception of this is that individuals may behave differently when in groups, the characteristics of a group are of the group and not a singular person: ‘these characteristics exist because groups are not just simple aggregations of individuals.’ (Shirky, 2008: 28).
When considering if in fact sharing sites, such as Flickr, facilitate the anchoring of community different trajectories race to the forefront of my thinking. It is plausible to argue that sharing services such as Flickr, and more recently Instagram, offer transnational communicative space for consumers. Spatial awareness is often challenged in a digital environment, raising the complexities of participation, making Shirky’s arguments highly relevant. Yet, to consider the notion of community as perceived by theorists such as Rheingold, Baym, Jenkins and many other scholars, leads me to the direction of considering sharing sites as a mere inflection of a larger-scale network of interactions, that are far more complex, in the role of community-making behaviour.
Categorising Individuals within the Community
Considering whether simply ‘sharing’ content contributes to community making to me entails that the consumer, or internet-user, must be reviewed. Placing the consumer in the role of an ‘audience’ member allows me to view the audiences that interact with shared content as enigmatic. To clarify, a consumer merely ‘consumes’ the content, be it photos on Flickr, or Tweets on Twitter, yet an audience member may interact with the content in a less-consumption based way, they may recreate or react. They do not just consume, they may also produce.
The term ‘audience’ can be perceived differently, Marwick and Boyd offer the idea that audience has been viewed ‘as a stable entity that congregates around a media object.’ (2010: 16). However, they then argue that this notion has been displaced, which contradicts my beliefs. Yet they offer variations to determining audience engagement and consumption which I feel apply wholly to Shirky’s depiction of Flickr and content sharing to anchor community. Terminology such as ‘interpretive community’, ‘fandom’, and ‘participatory culture’, imply that audiences, or consumers, are engaged with content, they are active and participating with the content, and the culture it produces. (Baym, 1999; Jenkins, 2005; Marwick and Boyd, 2010).
To conclude, my interpretation and response to Shirky’s Sharing Anchors Community has been crafted through application of current social media sites such as Twitter. I note that I have needed to intensely apply other concepts and scholars to develop the arguments Shirky presents. This offers a clearer perspective into how Shirky’s discussions are relevant to current social media climates, yet these arguments are enhanced through further exploration of digital debates, and new media concepts.
Baym, N. (1999) Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community. New York: Sage Publications Ltd.
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Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations. United Kingdom: Penguin Books Ltd.