The internet is no longer something we access, but somewhere we go to involve ourselves with the online world. The internet really is an actual place. Yet it’s a place without geographical location, being everywhere without physical existence at the same time.
The past few years have seen a steady rise in blogging, social networking sites, micro-blogging and now they have come together to form what we call social media. From the word go PRs have jumped on it and announced it as the latest innovation in the industry, a new platform to connect clients to consumers and reach people who previously haven’t been targeted as part of campaigns.
From information to interaction
One of the earliest uses of the internet was as an information tool, or collection of accessible knowledge. Now its uses have developed into ones of meeting and interaction, and have evolved in meaning, and how it is seen.
The phrase ‘I’m going online’ is used to mean using the internet, much like the description of leaving one place to enter another. We leave the physical world we live in to absorb ourselves in one we can also live in, and with the freedom to make whatever choices we wish about ourselves, creating endless opportunities when we view the internet as a large network.
Online and physical communities are not necessarily separate – people and ideas can cross between the two, therefore giving a more real sense to the online community. Not only are they not separate but they can react off of each other.
Websites such as Facebook and MySpace are extensions of the real world and their social networking genre offers an opportunity for companies to share in our lives. We may connect only with people we know in our everyday lives and form online relationships with them, but this is where companies become part of our online selves, and without us noticing most of the time too.
The meaning of community
Ever clicked ‘become a fan of’ on Facebook? If so, that action will have been communicated to many of your online friends, telling them in a discreet way you want to help promote that product/company/celebrity – basically you’re doing free PR for them. So are you being used and abused or are you simply helping the online world become a community?
The meaning of community no longer has to mean in person or physical, but can hold a higher emphasis on the stronger meanings behind it: the ability to connect to others and maintain relationships.
Online communities are less likely to be meaningful because they don’t offer the full person-to-person contact experience. However, when we look closer at the community relations we have in person, this can be argued against. When you see your neighbour occasionally, you ask meaningless questions and make small talk about the weather and more often than not, never really get to know them. This tells us that just because a relationship exists in the physical world, it does not mean it is any more substantial than one existing online.
We once used the telephone only to make calls. Now it can mean sending SMS text messages, photo messages, surfing the internet, checking emails, listening to music and taking photographs amongst other things on a seemingly endless list.
If the use of technology can change, there should be no reason why our interpretation of communities cannot change to coincide with this. Community is based around interaction: the very thing communication technology exists for.
The opinion that more time spent online isolates us in the real world may produce a shift in the meaning of community. The less we get to know people in the physical world, and the more we do online, the stronger the meaning of community will come across over the internet, and less so in real life.
Students for Barack Obama
To take a prime example of how social media works in when creating a community, take a look at Barack Obama’s election campaign:
‘Students for Barack Obama’ was set up in 2006 by student, Meredith Segal after hearing Obama’s Democratic National Convention speech in 2004 and wanting him to run for US president, long before Obama announced his candidacy.
The group gained popularity fast and by the time Obama announced his candidacy, it already had 62,000 members, all ready to support his campaign they had been waiting for.
With its aim to then be taken much more seriously, the group developed into a Political Action Committee, and now has almost 268,000 supporters receiving regular updates of Obama news via the group and links to the organisation’s official website, every member of which has been supporting Obama before the start, without direct involvement in his presidential campaign, without pay and being asked to campaign, but overall gaining the support of thousands of young people and doing exactly what Obama aimed to do throughout his campaign: reach people online.
The group is now recognised as an official page for student supporters of Barack Obama through the President’s Facebook profile.
It was online activity that saw the rise of offline action in young people, including producing youth voter turnout that may have led to the margin of victory.
I doubt a better example of the effect of social media and virtual communities will ever exist.