Community and Practice Online

Since I first became interested in art on the Internet, specifically through groups centered around rhizome.org, I’ve heard phrases like “the Internet art community” used to promote awareness of the field. Although I agree that, in general, online artwork deserves a more comprehensive awareness and understanding, it made me wonder what the implications are of characterizing such a group of far-flung and multifarious artists as a community.  Is there any truth to this claim?  What makes a community?  How are the members of a community involved with each other, and how should they be involved?

In their 1985 study of individuality and community in the United States, Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah et al. draw a distinction between community in the traditional sense, and another newer form of social group, which they call the “lifestyle enclave.”

According to Bellah et al., communities are defined by the interdependence of the individuals who form the group, their shared history, and their capacity for collective political action.  The most straightforward example I can think of is a village, whose citizens are united by the bonds formed by their families’ histories, by the shared traditions they continue together in their daily lives, and whose values have evolved and stabilized into a shared moral code. This code emerges, solidifies, and is reinforced by a community’s shared experiences and ethical trials, like the eventual homeostasis reached by an ecosystem.  Bellah et al.’s vision of community reminds me of Fellini’s depiction of his hometown of Rimini in his film, Amarcord, which illustrates with great sympathy the strong social ties of a group who have faced their every personal and political obstacle together.

Bellah et al. contrast the “community” with the so-called “lifestyle enclave”, a voluntarily assembled group drawn together by their acknowledgement of similar interests in leisure activities, consumption of products, and similar outward appearance.  Members of a lifestyle enclave may happen to share similar morals or traditions, but they are not socially dependent on each other, nor are they bound by any unavoidable obligations to one another. Unlike members of communities, members of lifestyle enclaves are not tied by a shared history, and are generally not obligated to assert and maintain the values and identity of the group.  The most evocative example that comes to mind is the suburban “gated community” (also a physical enclave due to its restricted access), the members of which are primarily drawn together by a shared desire for a secure and homogeneous environment, rather than any inherent or obligatory social interdependence.

Members of a community interact in the public spheres of work, politics, education, etc.; members of a lifestyle enclave interact in the private spheres of leisure activity.  Bellah et al. cite factors like an increasingly globalized economy which requires workers to relocate, the paradoxical American tradition of “leaving home” as a symbolic rebellion from one’s heritage, and the innovation of lifestyle marketing as possible contributors to the decline of the traditional community and the accompanying rise of the lifestyle enclave in the U.S.  Bellah et al. also point out that, at this stage in our society, “community” and “lifestyle enclave” can be seen more appropriately as the two ends of a continuous spectrum of interdependence, and that any given group may exemplify both labels to varying degrees.

The transition from community to lifestyle enclave, and its accompanying loss of social norms, is a point of conflict for many groups of many various political alignments.  One example, of which the American media are particularly fond, is the caricature of the outspoken preservationist, the defender of “small-town values,” typically depicted in satire as a member of some stodgy organization which might have us remain in Pilgrim costumes reenacting colonial towns for all time, if only they had their way.  There’s some irony to the preservationist’s stance, since the lifestyle enclave can be seen as an expression of both the freedom to do as one likes and the freedom from social obligation, which may be two of the most American of any values.  But what is understandable about the preservationist’s point of view is the fear that, along with the lifestyle enclave’s removal of the social interdependence of community, which defines and enforces social norms and obligations, we also remove its potential to develop the social character and relationships of its constituent members around a common way of life.

The Internet might be seen as a platform for supporting lifestyle enclaves of the most quintessential kind, since the mediation of the online computer interface satisfies Bellah et al.’s criteria for the lifestyle enclave with uncanny precision: it allows for one’s outward appearance to be crafted and shared with others through images and other content, free from the restrictions imposed by physical presence, and limited only by time, skill and effort. Social interdependence is unnecessary online, because, for the most part, work is unnecessary; the basic necessities of online existence are provided for by the technologies already in place; and, for the same reason, one can choose to use the Internet exclusively as a medium for leisure activities, including the consumption of online and physical products.  In this way, groups of Internet users are, to date, possibly the most free of the ties that bind, and are accordingly the most susceptible to the potentially alienating aspects of the lifestyle enclave.

So, with these definitions in mind, I have to confess some skepticism (albeit optimistic) when I read characterizations of the varied collection of individuals working online as a “rich community of Internet artists.”  I think groups of artists online which exemplify the positive social effects of communities do exist, despite their lack of obligatory social interdependence.  I’m interested in how these traits can be fostered and magnified in the network of online artists through various modes of group activity.

Anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger present what I find to be a useful framework for understanding how to build meaningful groups online. Lave and Wenger offer a theory based on “communities of practice”, an ancient concept but a new term, which they define as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”  The concepts of communities of practice and situated learning have been used since the early 90s to help understand networked activity, essentially comprising a systems-analysis of the means by which specialized knowledge is transmitted through and embedded in social environments.

Below is Wenger’s list of the modes of social activities by which communities develop their practice.  I’ve modified the examples to relate to online artwork in a general way:

-       Problem solving: “Can I get some feedback on this piece?  It’s okay but it could be better.”

-       Requests for information: “I have an idea for a piece using [tool] for making [thing], and I’m looking for ideas; does anyone know if this has been used this way before?”

-       Seeking experience: “Has anyone dealt with installing [equipment] in a gallery before?”

-       Reusing assets: “I have a template from a page I made that might work for you; I can send it to you and you can change it for your portfolio site”

-       Coordination and synergy: “Can we get together to organize a group show at [exhibition space]?”

-       Discussing developments: “What do you think of this new online curatorial project?  Is it something you’d want to participate in?”

-       Documentation projects: “I’ve seen a lot of people make artwork about [subject] using [tool]; are they aware of each other?  How are they related?”

-       Visits: “Can I come to your discussion group?”

-       Mapping knowledge and identifying gaps: “We’re putting together a list of all the online curatorial projects since 1995; are there any we’re leaving out?”

It’s clear that much of this is already happening in the Internet art network, but, in my opinion, more of these types of group interactions (especially if they were effectively organized within a central forum like rhizome.org) would lend online art groups the meaning which community provides, especially when it comes to documenting the history of our predecessors, the formations of projects and groups, and the development of artistic concerns unique to our field.  Such practices would not only improve our artistic pursuits and strengthen our social ties; they would also improve our appearance and legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

  1. rebecca says:

    et al et al et al et al et al