Tweeting alone: Is it the end of community (again)?

“People wonder about the absence of what used to be, while new forms of community have slipped under their radar scopes” – Wellman
The other day I was checking some references on online communities in preparation for a class. I found neat definitions of community, general consensus around the characteristics of online communities, and a sense of progression in understandings of community boundaries from being strictly delimited to being more “fluid”. Researchers have observed that notions of social bonding, social interaction, and communal needs have changed dramatically over a short period of time. These changes are frequently attributed to the rapid expansion of information and communication technologies and to the broad social changes promoted by them (or vice-versa). In accordance with the dominant view on contemporary community literature, Delanty (2003) notes that communication technologies have reshaped what is meant by the term ‘community’. He defends that ‘place, locality and symbolic ties are being drained off any content, and in their place are more fluid and temporary forms of social relations sustained only by processes of communication outside of which they have no reality’ (168). In online social networks, for example, individuals keep at reach a vast collection of acquaintances with whom they can interact without much effort. Interactions, is this case, consist of short messages written in ‘walls’, actions played with avatars, or the exchange of virtual gifts. Here, what creates and sustains a communal feeling among participants is a shared reason for communicating, combined to norms and protocols, and based on interactions that happen on the internet over time on a given platform(e.g. a website).
However, as my students and I noticed, it has become increasingly harder to identify such online communities. How does one set boundaries around a group of individuals interacting online when they move from discussion forums through chats, blogs, IM, Facebook, Twitter, podcasts, texting, Flickr, YouTube, back to Facebook, and connect to different people in each of these platforms?
Online communities are spreading and fragmenting, just like the geographical communities of the past. As Americans bowl alone, Brazilians type to themselves on a deserted Orkut. In 2006, the 50 most visited communities on Google's social network Orkut totaled more than 37 million members and received almost 1,3 million daily visitors. Although Google has been cautious in revealing the network statistics, a little browsing suffices to show that what was once a vibrant platform for online community formation now looks more like an abandoned alley. However, in observing this I do not suggest that we fall on the nostalgia trap. That could lead us to miss the “new forms of community” mentioned by Wellman, which might be forming around you as you read this post.
For example, mobile phone usage has made connecting to certain platforms easier that others. We now find people interacting through Foursquare and Instagram more than on discussion boards. Finding community, then, might be a matter of looking at the right places – or the right online platforms. However, what sort of community shall we find, once we are able to identify where the "online people” currently gathers?
Computer-mediated communication is changing with increased mobility – we communicate in a way that is faster, more fragmented, and more on-the-move than ever. Synchronicity became more relevant than it was in the early days of the internet – we want to connect to anyone, anytime. We want to know “what’s up” and we don’t want to wait to know it. We link our profiles one to another and seamlessly move across platforms to complete a social interaction. E-mail is considered “too slow” by most members of the millennium generation. If we think about these characteristics – speed, movement, change - we can notice a striking contrast among them and the way we usually think about community. Our way of conceptualizing community has systematically excluded “movement.” To the exception of entry and exit of a community, which are mostly treated as one-time, highly consequential events, not much has been written or discussed about how people move in, out, between or within communities. There are exceptions, such as Kozinets’ analysis of how community members move from newbies to insiders as they develop more social ties within the community and the activity around which the community is centered gains more importance to them. In general, however, our understanding of community participation has been mostly static. If we make an attempt to focus on change and movement instead, we can see how online communities have adapted to the technological and social changes – and reconsider whether what we’ve been struggling to find online has disappeared or still exists, albeit in a different format.
Bernardo Figueiredo, a post-doc at the University of Southern Denmark whose research focuses on the how global mobility impacts consumption practices of global cosmopolitans, introduced me to the “new mobilities paradigm” that is becoming popular within the social sciences.I have since been thinking about the implications of this paradigm to research in online communities.
In a fundamental article for the new mobility scholars, Sheller and Urry discuss methods for mobility research – and point to some advances on how to conduct ethnographies of mobile communities. These include “mobile ethnography” which involves participation in movement. From this approach, walking with informants, following them, and accompanying them are the key modes of participation. Under these conditions, field notes must be particularly attentive to time and space dimensions, registering variations of encounters with informants in multiple places. In my dissertation research, I used a similar approach and combined ethnography to netnography and followed my informants as they moved, geographically, back and forth from one city to another and from one country to another in order to find caches and meet fellow participants. I also followed participants online as they moved from discussion forums through chats, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, podcasts, Flickr, YouTube, and from website or app to another.
I found that these community members never stop, nor go somewhere to be “in community” and engage in the social and cultural activities we are interested in observing. They do so wherever they are, with whoever happens to be available. The task of observing and participating in such a moving swarm requires energy, tenacity and patience.
I found that following (or moving with) my informants across platforms produced data in multiple formats, some of which have no equivalent in traditional ethnographic research and require new definitions (e.g. “likes” on Facebook; albums on Pinterest; Youtube videocasts; or the brief and broken text of “tweets”).
Moreover, new social media platforms emerge every day that create new challenges for researchers. Each social media platform demands a particular set of skills to create and evaluate content (making, editing, and uploading videos for Youtube vs. writing succinct posts for Twitter, for example). The networking etiquette and interaction features also differ between platforms, and researchers must be aware of these particular aspects in order not to put themselves, or their informants, in awkward situations. Is it be better to “friend” your informants on Facebook or to subscribe to their updates? To make matters more complex, conversations between participants and the development of collective action may happen across platfomrs, such as when participants answer to a “tweet” with a comment on a website the “tweet” links to, or when they add on Facebook their impressions of a Youtube video shared by a friend via e-mail. As I found by following my informants online, the social media principle of authenticity applies to social media research as well.
In order to fully participate in social media, researchers may need to disclose more personal information than they are comfortable with. Although privacy filters and account management features are increasingly allowing users to take control of who sees what in their social media profiles, managing additional research profiles or particular privacy settings only adds to the already substantial task of the social media researcher.
My research experience with online communities in the social media era suggests that, if once netnography was seen as a shortcut that would provide researchers with fast and easy access to all the data necessary to understand and explain a culture or community, this is no longer the case. As the complexity of the social media available to consumers increases, netnographies will be the task of research teams, who will be able to manage finding, tracking, and interacting with individuals who are everywhere, all the time, making culture. Researchers working in teams can divide the task of participating in different social media platforms, or of observing and interacting with fewer informants in their online activities across platforms. Research teams can use the same social media platforms to discuss and integrate data – and international teams could work around the clock to avoid missing important data among the immense volume of short-lived content that is posted, read, and shared online.
In this sense, what the new mobility paradigm proposes – following people or objects instead of attempting to identify one single place/space where a community is supposed to gather - might be a good idea. This “research in motion” shifts the focus of our attention from communities to networks.
Networks are flexible arrangements. They grow, shrink, move, and vary according to the connections individual members form to each other and to external elements. These connections are formed through fragmented and cross-platform interactions. Therefore, it is harder to identify and study networks than groups, for the researcher will need to engage in the same activities network participants do: she will need to “actively search, maintain, and mobilize [her] ramifying ties, one-by-one, to deal with their affairs.” Nevertheless, this might be just what it takes to find community in today’s web.

Frustrated Fatshionistas

In market driven economies, we typically assume that consumers will seldom experience a prolonged scarce supply of goods they are willing to pay for. Yet some groups of consumers – particularly those who have historically been socially stigmatized – often find that the marketers fail to meet their needs. For example, prior studies found that African American consumers living in or near impoverished neighborhoods routinely experience attenuated access to a variety of goods and services they both wanted and could afford. Four years ago, I started a research project with Eileen Fischer in which we look at one particular group that perceives that the market does not provide options that are adequate to their needs: consumers of plus-sized fashion. The article that reports our findings has recently been accepted for publication at the Journal of Consumer Research. You can read the full paper here, but let me tell you a bit more about the Fatshionistas (fashion lovers who wear plus-sized clothing) and their quest for more choice in the fashion market. The following quote from a blogger who routinely writes on this topic illustrates the frustrations these consumers experience:
When I [damage] my clothes in some way, I tend to panic about it a little bit… This, my friends, is a side effect of living with style scarcity. Because I really don’t have any reason to believe I’d find something like the dress [that is torn] ever again. Now, no longer being in possession of a particular dress is not exactly a hardship; certainly not on the level of not having a place to live or enough to eat. But the panic bubbles up anyway, because I can’t just run to Anthropologie or H&M or where-ever the ladies several sizes down from me do their shopping and pick up another. Fat style is a scarce resource. (Lesley Kinzel, Two Whole Cakes, January 21, 2009)
In thousands of online posts like this, bloggers who are self-styled “Fatshionistas” indicate their view that the mainstream market provides them with too few fashionable clothing options. In principle, such behavior is consistent with pursuit of the right to consumer choice that is enshrined by law in many market-based economies. In practice, consumers frequently remain relatively disengaged from seeking greater inclusion in markets where they feel under-served. Consumer researchers have previously noted that even when they believe their marketplace choices are unduly restricted, consumers often fail to take action. So in our study we ask: When will marginalized consumers mobilize to seek greater satisfaction in mainstream markets? And how will they do so once they become mobilized? We develop answers to these questions studying Fatshionista bloggers and their followers who desire a greater range of fashionable plus-sized clothing choices. We find that mobilization is triggered by three factors:
• The first is the emergence of a collective consumer identity among members of a market segment; we observe plus-sized consumer embracing and identifying with the Fatshionista identity. • The second is the identification by that collective of “institutional entrepreneurs” (people who appear to be able to change the system) from whom they draw inspiration; in our context, the singer Beth Ditto who is both plus-sized and a fashion icon is one such inspiring institutional entrepreneur. • The third is the appropriation by consumers’ of logics from other fields that legitimate their desire for greater market inclusion, such as the logic of human rights, which Fatshionistas borrow from the Fat Acceptance Movement.
We also identify three strategies that consumers may employ to attempt to gain greater inclusion in a market, and more offerings from mainstream marketers:
• One is appealing to institutional logics within the market; Fatshionistas invoke the logics of art and of commerce that prevail in the fashion when trying to persuade established actors to serve them better. • A second is publicizing desirable institutional innovations and persistent institutional impediments; Fatshionistas help publicize the offerings of marketers who do try and meet their needs, and they call out marketers who make feeble attempts to offer plus size clothing and retreat without giving their experiments time to succeed. • A third strategy is allying with more powerful institutional actors; Fatshionistas take every opportunity to interact with influential designers and retailers in order to persuade them to do more to serve their needs.
Our theoretical contributions include a framework that can help us better understand how consumer (il)legitimacy affects market dynamics. When we consider how consumers are perceived in, and what consumers want from, the mainstream market in conjunction, we can anticipate four different kinds of dynamics.
Consider the case of Stigmatized Seekers, consumers like the Fatshionistas we studied who lack legitimacy in mainstream markets, yet who want more or better offerings from them. In such cases, the pace of change in markets may be slow and uneven, as institutionalized practices in the market and in the wider society have allowed marketers to ignore the aspiring segment. Though upstart marketers may try to meet these consumers’ needs, the mainstream will be slower to do so, and will find reasons to retreat from serving the segment even when tentative forays have been made. In contrast, Comfortable Collaborators (consumers who like mainstream offerings and who are courted by major competitors) can trust that marketers are ever vigilant to their wants and needs. In markets like these we can expect steady, if incremental, evolution as corporations endeavor to keep consumers contented, and to profit from that contentment by increasing sales within the segment. Consumers will have little need to be pro-active agents of market change, except in cases where they form attachments to offerings that marketers deem unprofitable. In contexts where consumers are Mainstream Malcontents who are legitimate in the mainstream market but who intensely dislike marketers’ practices, we expect that those whose profitability is threatened by the desired market changes will resist the institutional reforms desired by consumers. As part of this resistance, they may attempt to partially undermine the legitimacy of consumers. Nonetheless, in such contexts, compromises between past practice by marketers and changes desired by consumers may be part of the unfolding market dynamic. In contexts where consumers are Resistant Rebels who lack legitimacy in an institutionalized market setting, and who seek fundamental changes to the market logic, we expect very limited market change. Mainstream marketers either ignore their critics, or make minimal gestures in acknowledgement of their concerns. In general, we believe that unless Resistant Rebels can mobilize consumers regarded as legitimate by mainstream producers, or become legitimate themselves, then market dynamics will entail at most minor and/or temporary modifications to practices.
There are considerably fewer bloggers discussing plus-size fashion in South America, but consumers are not less dissatisfied here with the available offers in mainstream fashion markets than in North America and the UK. Poderosas Gordinhas (Powerful Fatties) and Grandes Mulheres (Big/Great Women)are two examples of blogs discussing the lack of options in plus-size clothing in Brazil, while La Pesada de la Moda (Fashion Heavy) is a hub for Spanish-speaker Fatshionistas. In Argentina, laws have been approved to apply heavy fines on local clothing manufacturers and stored that do not expand the numbers and sizes available to meet standards defined by legislation, which includes sizes from 36-50. However, media reports have pointed that business still provide skewed measures to avoid fines, and consumers who need larger sizes are still unable to find ready-to-wear clothes on the market.


Justin Biebering in Social Media

I never thought I would say (or write) this, but I have watched “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.” Twice. Considering that I am not a 13-year old, I don’t have a 13-year old daughter, I do have better things to do, and the film is rated 1.6 on IMDB (I bet his fans haven’t discovered the site yet), you might be wondering why on Earth I watched it. Twice.
It just happens that Justin Bieber is a social media product. And the movie is and excellent depiction of how his team of agents/coaches/marketers has used social media to turn a 14-year old boy from a small Canadian town into the Bieber phenomenon. The movie starts with scenes of a very web 2.0 behavior: screenshots of e-mail exchanges pop-up in which people share links to cute or funny or interesting videos that others have uploaded on to YouTube. We did that all the time before we could share links on Facebook, right? In February, 2008 someone uploaded a video of Justin Bieber singing one of Chris Brown’s songs on YouTube, the video went viral, and the rest is history. That video has been watched 40,662,907 times and Bieber’s official channel on YouTube has 1,597, 435 subscribers as of today. As Bieber and his agent started to tour radio stations trying to get them to play Bieber's first single, the boy tweeted to let his YouTube fans know which radio station he was at. Scooter Braun, Bieber's manager, recalls: “First 20 kids, then 40 kids, then 50 kids then hundreds of kids starting lining up just to get a glimpse of him.” The movie also shows Bieber tweeting to his fans he had a sore throat – and then some of the hundreds of thousands of instant replies and good wishes he received in return- making it clear that for Bieber social media is personal.
Bieber is also a smart boy and acknowledges the importance of social media in his celebrity status. When the Tribeca Film Festival honored Bieber–and his manager–with a “Disruptive Innovation Award” in April, for having shaken up the traditional gatekeepers of the music industry, Bieber was quoted saying that he feels the fans connected to him through social media: “I take time out of my day to retweet fans and really care. I don’t think I would be here without the Internet.” He also made it to the cover of Forbes Magazine last month where he teaches us all a bit on the relationship between social media marketing and ROI. So it’s not just me saying this.
It is also easy to see a connection between the Bieber phenomenon and some of the latest theory developments in the field of Marketing. In their forthcoming paper “Positioning person brands in established organizational fields,” Parmentier, Fischer, and Reuber draw on Bourdieu’s work and look at models competing for work in the fashion field to identify four brand positioning practices relevant for person brands: “crafting a portfolio, cultivating and demonstrating upward affiliations, complying with occupation-specific behavioral expectations, and conveying field-conforming tastes.” As with models, in the Bieber case (and, I suspect, in most cases in the music field) an agent played a key role in educating the young singer on how to craft his portfolio: a YouTube playlist before his career jumpstarted – and then carefully selecting songs to record. The agent also guides Bieber on how to cultivate and demonstrate upward affiliations. In the movie, Scooter is shown video-recording an arranged encounter of Bieber with Usher, in which Bieber, hoping to get his first record deal, sings to the already established American R&B artist. But I also see that Justin developed connections to the public before reached out to “patrons,” as Parmentier et al. define a powerful actor in the organizational field that may lend prestige to work postulants and help advance their careers. Once he started to build connections with more powerful actors in the music industry, Bieber already brought with him a small but constantly growing hoard of fans who had learned about him in social media. In fact, Scooter (the agent) affirms in the movie that Bieber’s fans are as loyal as they are because they found Bieber before the media and industry did.
When discussing how models have to comply with occupation-specific behavioral expectations in order to fit it, Parmentier et al. do not mention that even established organizational fields have moments of instability, when norms and behavioral expectations are shaken and, for a moment, open to questioning and change (Galvin, 2002). The advent of the Web 2.0 and the popularity of social media caused turbulence in many established organizational fields, including the music industry.
As an entrant to the field in such a moment of instability, Bieber was able to set new standards as he worked to stand out while fitting in. Personal and on-time communication with fans through social media is now expected by the public; as it is that an artist will share content (clips, songs, backstage videos) online; welcome feedback; act generously when meeting fans, and engage in random acts of kindness towards fans. These new expectations and behavioral norms can be associated with the fact that, through social media, the public has as much ability to generate and spread brand-related content as the artist does. Now, I don’t feel I know enough about popular-teenage music in order to analyze the logics and tastes of the field and to and check whether Bieber conforms to these or not. But I can always watch “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” again, because, let’s face it - the kid is as cute as one can be.
SOURCES: Galvin, Tiffany L. (2002), “Examining Institutional Change: Evidence from the Founding Dynamics of U.S. Health Care Interest Associations,” The Academy of Management Journal, 45 (4), 673-696. Parmentier, Marie-Agn├Ęs, Eileen Fischer, and Rebecca Reuber. “Positioning person brands in established organizational fields,” Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, forthcoming. DOI 10.1007/s11747-012-0309-2