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Paulina Borsook: "Focus on Community" - PRI _Beyond Computers_,
April 19, 2000

In the long-ago time before grandmothers had email addresses and tire companies sported URLs on blimps hovering above sporting events, say, the 1980s, the word "community" used to mean "a place where a bunch of people live close to each other", as in a prairie-dog community or in the beachfront communities of Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach. Among more political sorts, "community" also signaled "a bunch of people with some sort of shared identity", as in the urban Navajo communities of Tucson, Phoenix, or Flagstaff. Communities, even if dispersed, always had something to do with meatspace and not necessarily anything to do with commerce.

In the cyber-utopian 1990s, people like Howard Reingold believed in "virtual communities" such as the Well, where people would share, care, and engage in rap-sessions and group hugs, all online. John Perry Barlow and many of the folks associated with the early "Wired" magazine believed that use of computers and the Net was going to lead to a glorious online Jeffersonian republic, a "global community" of tuned-in, freedom-loving, happy mutants. Community was defined by the tools you used (computer, modem) and could be further refined, in computer parlance, into SIGs: special interest groups. These could be for Quake afficionados, mothers of children on Ritalin, or devotees of historically-accurate costuming. "Community" was seen as a place of computer-mediated analogs to the real estate of home and rec hall.

But in the ecommerce-besotted oughts, "community" has come to mean "target-demographic that can be narrowcast marketed to." You routinely see help-wanted postings for online community-moderators, often for things such as B2B pig-iron auction sites. In this case, "community" means "the electronic corral we attempt to prevent our customers from leaving." Startups and websites vaunt the notion of "community" as a selling point to support their on-beyond-zebra valuations.

But these "communities" are often little more than

a) electronic contact-paper designed with the hope of keeping websurfers ever more more stickily entangled, so they can be broadcast more marketing messsages.

b) places for people to mount vanity-press personal websites, which will be unread by anyone but the web-page publisher's significant others. These "communities" are virtual ghost-towns, deserted except for banner ads, which are the equivalent of the billboards alongside roads running through the more empty quarters of the Great Basin.

Or finally, 21st-century electronic communities are

c), "places where people looking to make purchase-decisions can read what other people have said about their purchase decisions" --- ideal for still more branding opportunities and promotional offers.

It's strange how once again "community" has come to be equated so strongly with "marketplace" --- for marketplaces once -were- places of community. Think of medieval market-towns of Coventry and Bremen, or the great crossroads of Timbuktu and Byzantium. But there, people would travel to them as much to hang out and hear the news and be entertained as to buy anything. No one's IPO depended on them --- and people there knew the difference between commercial and personal transactions.

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