Redefining Community

January 11, 2013

a page from my yearbookIn less than two short years, God willing, I will travel to Grand Rapids, Michigan to attend my 50th high school class reunion. I'm honestly looking forward to the occasion, because, well, it's been a very long time since I've seen any of those, by now, old coots. I have mixed memories from my teenage years, and I'm curious. I want to see who went where and who turned out to be what. I became a professional observer a long time ago, so I'll be the guy sitting there doing the observing or asking the probing questions.

Technology is already changing class reunions. Sites like Facebook, Classmates, and many others have made reconnecting pretty easy, although younger people aren't "reconnecting" as much as they're just staying connected. Heck, like many other things, reunions themselves may become a thing of the past. I have mixed feelings about that.

Western life is changing. Technology is empowering the bottom of culture's hierarchical pyramids by putting all of us into a massive, homogeneous network. Within the dimensions of time and space, power and influence reside with those who have the resources to dominate any or many of the institutional cornerstones we've created for ourselves. In announcing her likely retirement from writing an anti-marriage-equality column recently, Maggie Gallagher noted that "Culture wars are struggles over who has the power to 'name reality.'" She's referring to the institution of media, but the reference considers the hierarchical pyramid.

This is important, because the network spreads power and influence equally across its nodes, regardless of how it looks or seems outside its confines. "The big shift," as John Hagel calls it —, or Clay Shirky's "post Gutenberg economics," Jeremy Rifkin's "3rd industrial revolution," Martin Gurri's "the Fifth Wave," or a host of other titles — threatens everything we used to count on, from our associations to our economics.

That's because the network does and must function differently than the world outside. Within the network, space/time realities are altered, because a higher form of reality is brought to bear on everything. We are each godlike within the network, whereas we only function as garden variety human beings on the outside.

Kevin Kelly is one of the smartest thinkers on the planet, and he, too, views the network as what's changing everything:

So the 3rd Industrial Revolution is not really computers and the Internet, it is the networking of everything. And in that regime we are just at the beginning of the beginning. We have only begun to connect everything to everything and to make little network minds everywhere. It may take another 80 years for the full affect of this revolution to be revealed.

...Likewise the grand shift our society is undergoing now, moving to a highly networked world in the third phase of industrialization, is producing many innovations that 1) are hard to perceive, 2) not really about optimizing labor, and 3) therefore hard to quantify in terms of productivity.

Unless this is somehow checked by those with everything to lose (trust me; attempts are underway), nothing we know today will go untouched. As Mary Meeker wrote recently, "We're going to have to reimagine everything." She's not alone in this line of thinking.

the networkI've been watching all this take place and taking notes. For example, as the 3-way network touches everybody in the media world, one of the most intriguing shifts is that the definition of "community" is changing. We're going to have to "reimagine" what community means, and this has pretty profound consequences for a whole lot of folks who need "community" to only mean: "in my physical proximity." As with the changing landscape of any hierarchical paradigm of modernity, geography in a postmodern sense isn't as restrictive as it once was. Geography doesn't "change," of course, but in a hyperconnected network, it doesn't mean the same thing. Each individual is the center of their own universe online, and absent the bonds of time and space, that "universe" is the new definition of community. It will take years before the status quo begins to figure this out, but when they do, you'll see a big shift even in the world of buying and selling.

This is part of the problem I have with those who use the technology of the network to try and shift people back to the world of time & distance. Geofencing is just one illustration. The idea is to take the GPS location provided by your network data to "shout" advertising messages to you as you walk or otherwise pass by businesses who've paid somebody for the right to holler. Think of those kiosks at the mall. They're not supposed to hawk their wares at passersby, but that's a loosely-enforced rule. It's irritating and so is the idea of geofencing.

If we're going to examine how useful it is to "target" people, we must also look at the assumptions that go with such targeting. Geolocation is assumptive as an advertising leg up, because sometimes I'd just rather buy from Amazon, which doesn't care if I'm in Frisco or Fond du Lac. I don't need to know the location of the Papa John's that delivers pizza to my door. And so it goes. The value of time and space is decreased, because the network allows us to transcend it in so many ways. Just wait until technology moves into hologram transmission via fiber and beyond. I shudder.

The new definition of community — each individual is the center of their own universe — may require us to think differently, but it brings with it significant opportunities for business downstream. Let's look at my own life for a moment. If I could step outside the bonds of time & space, I could take the best of every "place" I lived and every "time" I lived within and bring them along with me in my new "community" world. I don't need to go to Racine, Wisconsin, to enjoy holiday Kringle, because somebody will send it to me, and if I want to escape the bombardment of what passes for music today, Pandora can take me away. Friends in Virginia Beach are as much a part of my circle of friendship as people who live in Frisco, Texas. And then there's my family in Amman, Jordan. You see, I've taken many things from my travels and work, and I don't just live in the northern suburbs of Dallas. I "live" in hundreds of connected locations at a hundred connected times. All of this, taken within the network — where I also buy and sell — is my local world, my community. This may seem like playing with semantics, but it truly represents a profound change.

Martin Gurri is a writer and a longtime foreign media analyst for the U.S. government. He is a deep, original thinker, and I asked him about this in an email exchange a few months ago.

Martin GurriThe Fifth Wave has revolutionized the ability to form communities. It has multiplied and diversified communities the world over. The focus for community can be trivial, like LOLcats, or it can be deadly, like the many jihadi websites. It can be anything in between: computer games, fan fiction, politics, Washington Nationals, Christianity, movie stars, you name it and there’s a community for it. This is a tremendous change from the days mass media ruled the information landscape. Mass media used to decide what was worthy of the public sphere, and most of what I just listed wasn't. Thus to establish a community in those dark old days was far more laborious and, in terms of time and trouble, more costly than it is now.

There is a particular shape to these niche groups. Information has a power law distribution, and the vast number of new communities exist in the long tail, with the spiky head, representing the largest publics, probably still under mass media control. However, the power law chart portrays a dynamic process — also a change from the past. The head of the chart is a desperately contested region. If you are Al Qaeda, for example, you want your message to go to the top. That is true of most communities, after all: they sincerely believe they deserve to be at the center of public attention. And once in a while a message sweeps out of the wilderness of the long tail and does indeed seize the center, usually crushing established gate-keepers along the way. Dan Rather lost his job over one such eruption, for example. The Facebook groups in Egypt did the same for Hosni Mubarak.

The fact is, the ability to form new communities of interest, and to impose these on the public sphere, is what the Fifth Wave is about: all the trouble and turbulence are really a factor of this one transformative change.

I tell media companies that they "should" be promoting the personal brands of their employees, because they will continue to work for them long after they've left their employment. How, you ask? The assumption in the worlds of time & space is that a reporter leaving Shreveport to work in Atlanta is only now of interest to people in Atlanta. The network turns that assumption on its head, however, because the network allows the same people who followed this person in Shreveport to continue following them in Atlanta, and that means this former employee takes a bit of her old station's reach with her. We can and will figure out how to monetize that downstream.

Advertising targeting within the network allows local businesses to reach people regardless of their location on the planet. Normally, advertisers would only want to reach geographically "local" people, but this will evolve to include distant family, friends and former residents as well. Dad, who moved to Florida, may want to tell his daughter back in Chicago that his old suburban car dealer buddy has a deal that fits her needs perfectly, but how would he do that absent information about the sale? The more you can allow yourself to think along these lines, the more you can begin to see the logic of commerce fitting the network in a very different way than it does in the time/space world.

I believe this has profound implications for local media, because the very identity of "local" communities is being redefined. Hyperlocal news sites — that is to say those that are birthed and operate within a specific, hyperlocal geography — "work," because founders are able to manage them from the bottom up. I know one man, for example, who takes barter for ads, which, in turn, helps offset his wants and needs. The reality for big media companies, who attempt to create the appearance of hyperlocal content sites for the ability to sell targeted ads, is that they really don't work. The passion is missing, and the expectations are often out of whack as well. Local ad networks can serve everybody, if they're run properly, and this is something we'll see increasingly downstream.

Meanwhile, content and commerce opportunities exist far beyond the mass media concept of advertisements displayed adjacent to "objective," mass-marketed content. We simply have to let our imaginations create new values based on, among other things, this new definition of community. Life is so much more than what our senses can provide, and this is the core lesson of the postmodern era.