Abstract: Social media has changed how the sense of ‘community’ is perceived. Communities are closely tied to how people identify with them. This paper will argue that social media has changed how this identification is made, bridging old divisions, and leading to the formation of new types of inclusive and diverse communities that eschew traditional social markers. These new communities may serve various purposes, from political to simply an integration and negotiation of new kinds of identity. Diversity will be considered in a broad social context; for the purposes of this paper, the primary focus will be on nationalities, with miscellaneous examples considered for analysis.
Keywords: #communities #socialmedia #identity #nationalities #groups
Social media has altered the traditional conceptions of communities and has made them diverse and inclusive. Communities refer to an imagined group in a particular place formed around common characteristics. In fact, traditional sociological research on communities primarily considered geography as a defining common factor for people (Taylor, 2008). The geographical emphasis inadvertently led to a rise in the importance given to markers like nationality.
With the advent of the Internet and social media, we have seen humans replicate that sense of community virtually, with formation of new kinds of groups which are no longer necessarily based on traditional characteristics like defined by geography, but on miscellaneous shared interests, or a belief in similar ideas. While it is true that many groups on social media and the internet are formed based on identarian interests and some form of tribalism is seen, based on different types of identity markers like race or gender, a divergence from traditional group behavior and norms is an overwhelming trend. We will primarily focus on this divergence in the following paragraphs.
Contact and shared interest
In the traditional sense, communities were tied to physical space and in turn, constant physical contact. This often led to a limited perception of what community could be, e.g., defined by race or nationality. Arguably, social mobility was a huge factor in how communities evolve or define themselves. Hampton (2016) argues how previous advancements in communication technology afforded convenience of moving places and changing shared space but didn’t have a mechanism for sustained contact and awareness among people. This can lead us to conclude that it created a palpable fear among people to travel and experience a different sense of self; They feared losing their traditional social support systems and identity markers. This inconvenience is a major factor in understanding why progressive ideas about identity and community took time to develop. Technological advancements had made global communication and travel more convenient, but it was only in the digital era, there was an increased incentive to evolve the sense of community.
Digital technologies, have an advantage of what Hampton (2016) calls “persistent contact” and “pervasive awareness” which allow people to create sustained ties across long distances. This can be seen in how people keep in touch on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, share their lives, and maintain an awareness of each other’s lives, no matter where they are. Features like instant messaging on these platforms ensures persistent contact and mechanisms for sharing through posts, stories, comments, etc. ensure persistent awareness.
This level of constant contact and awareness was vital in creating space for new identities, as mobile people acquired new interests and shared them with their existing groups. People across nations, miles away, can ‘follow’ or ‘like’ a similar brand, or cultural product, and engage with it in their own unique ways. They may even find commonality based on political ideas unique to their countries but sharing similar goals and connect based on that. They are no longer limited by factors like the demographics of their region when it comes to ethnicity or their geographical reality; ideas take precedence.
Re-structuring of community
It is often argued that with the advent of social media in the digital age, there has been a “loss” of traditional community, and ties among people are weaker. It is a form of moral panic that has existed in previous eras as well; only this time, social media is blamed for this loss. It is a form of nostalgic thinking that seems to romanticize the past but ignore the very pervasive issues and problems that people have always faced. In this context, an example that is usually considered is of closely-knit, intimate communities in small towns or rural areas, where bonds between people were supposedly ‘stronger.’ This line of thinking ignores the drawbacks of such intimate communities; society fell short on “contemporary notions of social justice, equality, and freedom” (Hampton & Wellman, 2018). Close-knit communities often also meant the perpetuation of similar prejudices against ‘outsiders’ or ‘the other.’ It could also lead to ‘groupthink’ and an aversion to innovative ideas. Traditional community, more often than not, referred to people segregating themselves on the basis of factors like race or religion. Segregation prevents inter-community exchange, dialogue and communication and can lead to social stagnancy.
Thus, instead of ‘Loss of traditional community’, it would be more accurate to say that community is being re-structured, mostly for the better. “Social media is fostering networked, supportive, persistent, and pervasive community relationships.” (Hampton & Wellman, 2018). Social media has made it possible for people to form connections outside of their immediate social groups and find new ways to communicate across cultures and languages. The Internet ensures access to the same content regardless of where it is being accessed. The same posts reach different audiences regardless of their demography or social identity. This provides an opportunity for deeper engagement and conversation instead of one-sided messaging. As ideas are thus freely exchanged, it enables people to give up old assumptions about identity and form communities based on this free exchange.
This can be further understood through the concept of the “networked public” (Boyd, 2010). If communities are an imagined group in a specific physical space, networked publics are a virtual space for people to get together and connect to socialize, for cultural events, or to engage in political discussion. This virtual space is a huge factor in shaping the nature of community today. As previously mentioned, communities used to be restricted by geography and physical space which created demographic barriers based on social identity. The virtual space is free of these traditional restrictions and can allow the same functions of a community, while allowing different people of traditional identity groups to come together under new banners, ideas, or purposes.
To understand the erosion of the importance placed on traditional social markers, namely ethnicity and nationality, and the evolution of identity, we will consider examples of Indian and Kurdish identity.
Changing national geography: A tale of two ‘diasporas’
The ‘Indian diaspora’ refers to a diverse group of Indians who have migrated to different parts of the world, usually English-speaking countries, and usually have settled down. Their descendants also count as part of the diaspora. Before social media and the digital era, migrants to the United States had a much more difficult time adapting and adjusting their identities, as maintaining connections with their home country was more difficult. Social media has made that easier. This convenience is also coupled with the Western media exposure and cultural exports.
One of the most popular American shows in India in 2011 was the sitcom “How I met your mother”, widely consumed on various screens (Sahoo & De Kruijf, 2016). Social media enabled discussion of the show plot, sharing of memes, and cultural comparisons among fans all over the world. The ending was even compared to a popular Bollywood movie. This enabled Indians at home and abroad be part of American culture, through real-time engagement with their cultural product. This is true of other types of cultural products as well, like movies or books. It can thus be argued that this form of engagement created an environment of inclusivity for Indian people, regardless of their nationality or race.
Thus, Indians in India with the intention to migrate already have decent cultural exposure of the English-speaking countries that they eventually migrate to, while maintaining contact with their native culture. This enables them to be involved in a widened community space, identifying with cultural products and shared ideas, rather than simply social markers.
Marginalized communities of India have also benefited from community formation through social media. ‘Dalits’ is an umbrella term used for groups of oppressed ‘lower castes’ in India. These usually referred to groups of people involved in menial labor and were discriminated against. Dalits can now voice their concerns on social media and raise their concerns internationally, while previously they had little to no options and avenues to raise awareness and band together over the issues they faced. They worked in small towns and villages where often members of the ‘higher castes’ suppressed their free speech. On social media, there being no barriers to expression, Dalits across the country, and even outside of it (ones that are part of the diaspora) can raise awareness of their plight and voice their concerns.
Social groups, especially politically contested ones like the Kurds, that don’t have a full-fledged national identity yet have also found unique ways to engage socially and come together as communities. Mired in political conflict, Kurds have, over decades, almost exclusively existed as a diaspora. Those close to the homeland have concerns about diaspora Kurds, who have assimilated into European societies and become less attached to local tradition (Mahmod, 2019). A new networked space, distinct from the conflicted region of ‘Kurdistan’ (potential homeland for Kurds) have enabled second-generation Kurds to move away from nationalism as a sole marker of their Kurdish identity. Younger generations of Kurds define their identity by extracting influence from international popular culture and political thinking.
Lack of restrictions on online expression on social media means that they can express ideas completely different from traditional Kurdish ones, rooted in Western thought and discuss taboo subjects like sexual freedom and progressive attitudes towards gender. These new ideas, negotiated with their traditional identity, is enabled by online forums, where sometimes anonymity is a boon and people may discuss new ideas without fear of repercussions. Ethnically mixed Kurds born in other nations no longer identify with ‘displacement’, but rather, a new form of integrated identity, owing to free online expression, and an ability to connect with like minded members of the diaspora worldwide.
Both if these above examples lead us to conclude that social media and online cultures enable national and/or ethnic identities to become more integrated, diverse and change who is included or excluded in a particular community. Being ‘Indian’, or even ‘Kurdish’, may mean many things, and may include a variety of people with diverse perspectives, owing to unrestricted online engagement.
Local activism goes global
Social media also has an impact on local political movements and changes the perception of ‘community’ in unique ways. Protesters during the Egyptian revolution in 2011 made extensive use of social media and connected with sympathetic voices from across the world. They made various tweets and videos and voiced the problems and violence faced by them on the internet. Even though the movement was about Egyptian issues, people across the world commented, liked, and shared the concerns, by identifying with their own experiences with authority (Bridgman, 2014). This created a new form of online community, as ‘online activists’ ranged from Egyptians to people from as far as Spain and Philippines. These ‘transnational’ audiences participated in collective activism and built a new kind of community around resisting authority and dictatorship. Through social media, identity crossed national and ethnic boundaries and created a new kind of virtual space of like-minded people. It brought the movement global attention and enabled people from around the world to connect and form their own virtual community.
The very nature of online communities favors the construction of a specific type of identity, one based on individual worldview and interests, which in turn change the framework and nature of identification with communities (Arfini, Parandera, Gazaniga, Maggioni & Tacchino, 2020). These new communities, then, favor a diverse set of people, because traditional social markers no longer apply in a virtual networked space. Online communities, then, expand upon already existing parts of a person’s offline identity, which include their offline social network and cultural practices. This expansion leads to formation of inclusive communities based on shared interests and ideas, regardless of social markers.
We have examined and understood the nature of new kinds of communities as distinct from traditional ones, bound by space and social markers. As examples of unconventional community, examples of the Indian and Kurdish diaspora were considered. A new type of transnational, ‘virtual community’ can also be seen in online protest movements like the example considered of the Egyptian revolution. It can thus be inferred that social media creates a new kind of space for community formation, and this space in turn leads to communities that may include people of diverse nationalities or races, as they are no longer constrained by physical space or local social factors.
Arfini, S., Parandera, L. B., Gazzaniga, C., Maggioni, N., & Tacchino, A. (2020). Online Identity Crisis Identity Issues in Online Communities. Minds and Machines, 31(1), 193-212. doi:10.1007/s11023-020-09542-7
Boyd, D. (2010). Social network sites as networked publics. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self. Routledge.
Bridgman, K. (2014). Assemblages of Dissent: The Emergence of Online Identities during the Egyptian Revolution. In D. Hickey & J. Essid (Eds.), Identity and Leadership in Virtual Communities: Establishing Credibility and Influence. IGI Global.
Hampton, K. N. (2015). Persistent and Pervasive Community. American Behavioral Scientist, 60(1), 101-124. doi:10.1177/0002764215601714
Hampton, K. N., & Wellman, B. (2018). Lost and Saved . . . Again: The Moral Panic about the Loss of Community Takes Hold of Social Media. Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews, 47(6), 643-651. doi:10.1177/0094306118805415
Mahmod, J. (2019). New Online Communities – New Identity Making The Curious Case of the Kurdish Diaspora. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Studies, 6(2), 34. doi:10.29333/ejecs/245
Sahoo, A. K., & Kruijf, J. G. (2016). Indian transnationalism online new perspectives on diaspora. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Taylor, J. (2008). What is community? Working with communities in health and services. (ch.2, pp-21-42). Retrieved from: http://link.library.curtin.edu.au/p?pid=CUR_ALMA11181886070001951
22 thoughts on “Social media and the re-structuring of communities : Changing perceptions.”
Thank you for inviting me to read your paper. I found it quite fascinating and well analyzed. You have successfully managed to depict how social media is actually forming a new type of community with some brilliant supporting ideas. However, as many are arguing, there seems to be a conflict between how social media is actually destroying communities instead of “re-structuring them for the better.” With social media, comes addiction and anti-social behavior. I would love to hear your take on this.
Thank you for your response Temul. A new technology brings with it new issues, and overuse and “social media addiction” have undoubtedly become cultural phenomenons. I think the challenge moving forward would be to balance virtual and real communities, so they aren’t in conflict with each other. This can ensure that anti-social behavior and social media addiction can be kept in check, as people won’t need to escape their lives too often.
I enjoyed reading your paper, it touched on some points I hadn’t thought about it broadened my perspective on identities. The part where you mention that it social media played a major part in politics, I can not disagree with that as the evidence in many countries is undeniable since 2011. While online media activism brings an expanded mindfulness about cultural issues, questions stay with regards to whether this mindfulness is converting into genuine change. Some contend that social sharing has urged individuals to utilize PCs and cell phones to communicate their interests on friendly issues without really captivating effectively with crusades, all things considered. Their help is restricted to squeezing the ‘Like’ catch or sharing content.This aloofness is an extremely human response when individuals are given choices that vindicate them from the obligation to act. what do you think?
Interesting insight, Adel!
“Performative activism” is definitely something that can be seen offline as well as online. I think online activism does a great job in the areas of awareness and spreading the message. When it comes to real change, it is dependent upon many variables, many of which are present in the offline world. That kind of change is hard to control. I think people go for this passive and aloof approach because it is more convenient and not as unpredictable as “boots-on-the-ground” activism. Movements like the Arab Spring have elements of both.
I have really enjoyed your discussion within your paper. Firstly, I really enjoyed your view on ‘contact and shared interest’ and how this has merged with technological affordances how we share content has evolved and creating new space with new communities.
I think one of the major changes that I could identify and relate to is citizens and political talk and political communities. How citizens share their views on matters that are important to them and connect to others who feel the same. However, this has created more ideologies and segregation within the platforms.
I enjoyed your discussion on re-structuring of community and the loss of traditional communities. I come from a very small place in New Zealand, and we were extremely close growing up and very close knit. We have all remained remarkably close because of social media and we have kept our community as a place to see what have been up to, rather than a space for political updates. I thought your case studies were executed well and I you took me back to New Zealand and my homeland my connections that I still have with them and if social media was around 20 years ago, how different things would be.
I do feel that the change of online communities and global activism has now changed and citizens are expressing themselves more freely and more ideologies such as patriotism and nationalism is enforced especially because Trump used social media and online communities who feel strongly on these issues were bought together to create deadly harm in January. This is a concern because this is a change to online communities who want to also voice their opinions and make themselves heard.
My paper looks at these communities and the changes that politicians have created and the way they use the media for analytical purposes.
I think this some of these issues in my paper would strengthen your arguments and the future of online communities.
Well done on a great paper.
Thank you for your kind words, Nakia!
You are right: the nature of online communities ultimately leave open the possibility of them being analyzed and used by influential people, especially politicians. On one hand, we have free expression by people of diverse backgrounds, and on the other, the risk of demagoguery and catering to base instincts of an influential social group to gain political points.
Hence, it becomes vital for communities to maintain strong ties and remain increasingly cautious of malignant influence and divisiveness that these platforms can risk create.
You are absolutely right to maintain strong ties and a strong sense of community and belonging.
I love your highlighting of the loss of community being a nostalgic sentiment. It’s true, there is no such thing as “true community” when comparing pre and post digital communities. Both are true communities, and the affordances of new technologies have enabled the restructuring of communities virtually, bending time space restrictions, challenging our understanding of “true community” and how communities are formed, and what binds them together.
There have been many sentiments voiced as technology and social network enabled devices saturate landscapes about the loss of “real” life, the loss of “physicality”, the loss of connection etc, but the mobilization of community online is another artefact of the digital age, expressing how we grow with our technology and adapt our need for togetherness in the virtual space.
I particularly enjoyed your case study reflecting on how culture is translated online, noting the elimination, or lessening of the “caste” system in the digital space. Prior to the mass and classless digitization of society, those who were viewed as being part of a particular social class would not have been entitled to free speech in physical society. I think this is a particularly powerful point you raise – it almost works to eliminate antiquated sentiments about class and power as the technology mobilises us in the same space with only our performed identity and authenticity being on display.
I wrote about influencer culture and the capitalizing of community for revenue. If that sounds like it would be of interest, please check out my paper here.
Thanks again for sharing your paper.
Thank you for your comments Tim! You are right: nostalgia has a strong bearing on many cultural attitudes prevalent today, especially in reaction to new technology. When traditional structures are challenged, it is always met with resistance. For instance, we can consider the case of the Luddites, who vandalized machines in the beginning of the industrial age.
The new challenges and problems brought with social media don’t negate the possibilities and freedom, if utilized correctly. Traditionally ‘marginalized’ communities can possibly evolve into something new and we could all benefit from a different kind of inclusive identity formation.
Your paper seems interesting: I would love to check it out!
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your paper and I agree that social media has allowed communities to re-structure, changing the perception of communities. I think we are seeing this in practice more now than ever. You mentioned that social media has enabled global activism and I think this is very prevalent today, considering the various movements that have been initiated as a result of social media.
Online and virtual communities have become prevalent today and are causing communities to re-structure for the better. People from all over the world are able to come together in spite of geographical boundaries because of technological advancements like the internet and I only see this getting better for our society.
I really enjoyed reading your paper, it very informative and i must say that I totally agree with your points. This is a beautiful statement. But Anurag, do you really believe that that the digital world is taking over and destroying the community? Don’t you think that the internet and the technology is building up our community and our society?
See for example during this pandemic, it was the digitisation that help many of us to be in touch with our families and friend and also it help many internet users to get therapy online, people kept working from home. Therefore, guess it’s a good concept tho.
i hope to hear from you soon.
Very well written paper Anurag.
I now understand better how social media has changed the concept of community by giving people from diverse backgrounds the tools to access other groups around the world and I also learnt more about the situtaion of the Kurds thanks to the example you provided.
Maybe some more referencing could have strengthened your argument in places because I found a few statements that I believe are not supported by any facts.
For example, when referring to social media content, you wrote “The same posts reach different audiences regardless of their demography or social identity”. From my understanding, it is well known that social media site algorithims curate content towards individual interests with the objective of capturing and maintaining attention. This has led to the echo chambers that continues polarizing American voters, for example.
You also wrote “On social media, there being no barriers to expression…”. In my research, it is apparent that viewpoint based censorship is rife among the largest SNS at the moment, with content being censored and channels being demonitised and/or deplatformed at alarming rates.
Those being said, on the whole your paper offered excellent insights into the creation of communities online that are often based on the individuals world views and interests. It was well structured, provided clear information and examples and I enjoyed reading it. Well done
Thank you for your comment, David!
You raise very good points about the problems with social media. As far as content curation goes, you are right that content is curated based on individual interests, but that was exactly my point. Social media platforms don’t care about traditional demography or social identity markers, as those would matter more in a world predating mass media, as much as what common interests people may have so that they have people’s attention. That said, new problems have definitely emerged because of the same, with echo chambers and divisiveness. It is clearly something that is being dealt with by the people and governments as we speak, and will take a while to figure out.
When I talked about there being no barriers to expression, I was referring to traditional barriers of social identity and geographical distance. In recent times, censorship has clearly risen on social media platforms at an alarming rate, something which didn’t exist at the time they first emerged. I have read many fascinating papers on this conference itself that have addressed this very issue.
I will keep your feedback about including more references in mind so I can have additional clarity in my writing in the future. Thank you for engaging. Really appreciate this discussion!
That was a very insightful paper! I totally agree with your point, saying “community is being re-structured, mostly for the better”. This is a beautiful statement. There was always this whole argument about how the digital era is destroying our community when it really is not! This is just a transitional state.
Your example on Indian diaspora was also very interesting as it helped people with the cultural background to create something unique online and partake in online activities such as memes within their context. I believe it is very empowering to find individuals who just understand your references and it is not fairly common in an English-focused digital environment.
So thank you for this well-thought piece!
As you mention local activism going global, I also explore this topic in relation to Commentary YouTube being a powerful tool to movements.
Feel free to read it and leave a comment if you want to highlight any point.
Thank you Elodie! Will surely check out your paper.
What a fascinating read! As we’ve discussed in my paper’s comments, we’ve looked at the same issues of persistent-pervasive community and networked publics, but from different perspectives, and it was very interesting to see how you applied those same concepts to different contexts. I see you had a lot of ideas that you wanted to address (same here!) and each was interesting in its own right, but I really would have loved to read more about the Indian and Kurdish diaspora communities you mentioned, in particular.
You mention that members of the Kurdish diaspora connect with each other online, but also that those close to the homeland are concerned that diaspora members in European countries are becoming detached from the culture. Is there much online discussion between these two groups, or do they largely remain separate?
I’m also curious about how you mention that Dalits have much more freedom of expression online. Are the online communities more egalitarian, or is it that people are able to obscure markers that would suggest they belong to a particular social group more easily online?
Well done on a thought-provoking paper, you’ve definitely given me plenty to read up on and learn more about!
Hi Amanda, thank you for your comment!
The Kurdish diaspora faces a problem faced by most diaspora and/or immigrant communities across the world: Conflict between tradition and assimilation. The members of these two groups do remain “separate” the same way young and old social media users remain separate; that is, they have their own circles but they aren’t completely disconnected. This could be a major reason for their generational divide as well.
As for Dalits, both of your statements are true to some extent, although in online social advocacy, like in the case of Dalits, obscuring their social markers is actually counterproductive, considering the fact that they use online tools as a free and open platform to raise their issues and assert their identities without fear of persecution and alienation.
These are interesting questions, and as you said, there is always more to learn about these communities in the online setting 🙂
Thanks so much for your response, Anurag! That all makes a lot of sense.
It was a real pleasure to read your paper since it is very informative and has a great flow. You managed to highlight very good arguments on social media and its power to reconstruct online communities. I particularly enjoyed your paragraph on social media enabling activism globally. We can take the recent example of the Black Lives Matter movement that generated enormous engagement from social media users and online communities. However, for future papers, you could have a focus on a specific social media and its ability to reconstruct communities and change perceptions. Adding more scholarly articles could also have given even more weight to your paper and the arguments you are putting forward.
Overall like I said, I really enjoyed reading your paper and I hope that my comments will help you in future papers.
Do not hesitate to check out my paper on, “Black Natural Hair Vloggers on YouTube Are Empowering Their Audiences’ by Encouraging Them to Embrace Their Black Identity.” The link is below:
I hope to hear from you soon.
Thank you for your comment, Rachel! You are right – Black lives matter is a great example for my context because it brought to light issues faced by African Americans and spread them on a global scale. Regardless of locality, black people in America could engage in relevant discussion and advocate for their rights. It also enabled an “allyship” system, where other minorities could join African Americans as allies and speak up against bias and racism policing policies. That said, would definitely love to check out your paper 🙂
Great essay and an awesome introduction to some concepts I was a little unfamiliar with. It shows that you knew your topic very well and advocate for the formation of online communities. I must say however, there were some areas where I lost focus of what the topic was, given that you discussed such huge topics of diaspora, social media, communities and activism all at once. Despite this though, I’m glad you were still somewhat able to link it back to your chosen stream. I wrote my essay on an opposite viewpoint, so feel free to check it out. I think we could have a good debate on our differing views.
Appreciate you going through my paper. My intention was to use those huge topics as supporting ideas/concepts, which can help conceptualize virtual communities through real world examples. Will surely check out your paper. Looking forward to a lively discussion.