Baym and 1990s CMC Concerns on Online Community

Baym and “Community”

In Nancy K. Baym’s discussion on Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) there is careful empirical perspective of online groups as a kind of social organization.1 In particular, Dr. Baym proposes her chapter as moving towards answering the question of “What occurs on-line that leads some people to experience [on-line communities] as communities in the first place (p 38)?”

Dr. Baym introduces the chapter with a summary discussion of the political nuances of what a community might be and how interactions online might not be. Then she goes on to discuss in accordance with past literature in CMC how communication online feels like community in “style” and avoids the question of whether or not they actually are communities per se. Still it would appear as though she would prefer to call social interaction online “communities” as she phrases her sentences as such rather than some other form of pseudo-community, proxy community, or otherwise. To me, it seems as though this discrepancy in terminology is primarily a semantic discussion in the context of CMC scholarship of the 1990s.

In the summary discussion, there are a few arguments that are suggested as having potential legitimacy on this semantic particularity even though they are not endorsed entirely. Dr. Baym’ claims the opposition of the most weight are “homogeny and lack of moral commitment” (p 36). I will address these in turn.


To unpack the argument, supposing the homogeny of online groups being problematic relative to communities necessarily means they organize in accordance with similarities in a way that communities do not. In other words, these online groups create what has popularly been popularly been deemed “filter bubbles” as of recently. Additionally this is the phenomena that a network scientist might call homophily, which is defined as my grandmother might have said, “birds of a feather…” The notions of how close people are in terms of their characteristics is a very broad discussion in academia bridging all sorts of formalized social subjects. It has even been noted in semantics literature that words themselves tend to organize closer together in accordance to their meanings; as Firth famously put it, “We shall know a word by the company it keeps” (p 11).2 More immediately useful, in modern urban economics literature it has been noted that people tend to move to voting districts which agree with them politically and economically, or as it has been put, people are ‘voting with their feet’.3

In using these kinds of comparisons of various notions what one might call “community” in various kinds of social groups, I hope it is clear that the argument that whatever online homogeny that exists, it can only be argued as problematic if it a quantitative matter of degree of similarity of users. Clearly, if people literally move to the same geographically based community in a city because of their political or economic similarities, one cannot simply argue that social groups online are not communities because of that same qualification. Thus, I would suggest that if we are to continue this line of argument, there either must be some kind of state-change to “pseudo-community” or further qualification in making this claim; otherwise we may simply consider it an arbitrary semantic choice. Regardless, to my current limited knowledge about the history of this discussion, this seems like an insubstantial difference.

Indeed, I would like to take a step further and suggest perhaps a radical notion. I believe that frequently online social groups are more diverse due to the very notion that Dr. Baym suggests might discredit online spaces being communities. Baym notes that people online are a simple hyperlink or web address away in leaving the social group and that this might make it believable that online groups are much less diverse as members can leave as soon as they prefer not to be there. Although this hyper-mobility is obvious, they can also become present in just the same manner. Because of this, a person online can follow literally thousands of blogs, web forums and sub-forums, Facebook pages and groups, and so on. I might have one question to ask on Reddit and never use that site again. But yet, the fact that this is constantly happening with all kinds of different users means it must be possible that the exact opposite of Baym’s proposed argument occurs. There could be a total osmosis of ideas and socially untrained behaviors that pass through social groups online depending on the way that group’s norms and its site’s infrastructure construct the group dynamic (or lack thereof). In fact, the lack of “community” online could be the opposite problem, that we cannot simply assume people know the norms. In fact, it would seem traffic through a literal neighborhood or geo-based community seems relatively fixed and normalized by comparison to some websites.4 5 It could be most online social groups are the institutions that could constantly be dealing with matters of extreme diversity, not communities.

Lack of Moral Commitment

Dr. Baym suggests that perhaps one might give credit to the fact that there’s a “lack of moral commitment”. Actually, here might be the legitimate qualification. If what I have suggested is true with homogeny, it could be a single online institution may struggle to commit itself to policies of moral norms, or rather when it does, it commits itself to something of a “hard-coded” morality that was not the basis of the informational demands of of those group members to come and thus impedes social change or diversity. Clearly, finding any kind of “consensus” of a group with eternally interchangeable members is problematic. The result of online group policy is bound to be compared to either something akin to mob mentality or representative of some group moderator’s authoritative moral perspective. If we were to consider, for example, a single online sub-forum to be existing as a kind of fixed social institution without regards to the informational demands of those in it, I think this argument would quickly be accepted as either ethical anarchy or authoritarian depending on the infrastructure of the sub-forum.

However, I find this also to be oversimplified, dismissive definition of community that is based on historic notions of personal experience of social that do not seem very generalizable or theoretically precise. For example, I do not simply “live” strictly on my Facebook wall online and walk occasionally to the local Reddit until the memes just seem a little rotten, and then I switch to 4chan for the ripe memes. I use many different communities at different times for different things at a much more granular level because of the more liquid connection between pages as claimed in the previous section. There are many more variables involved. Even my online “neighborhood” is more volatile depending on changing tastes and informational demands for these social groups. Also, the sheer diversity of possibilities for how to manage (or not) the kinds of people that can get into an online social group, the sets of rules (or lack thereof), and the possible kinds of static infrastructure that organize informational flow seems to allow for a near incomprehensibly many options for how to communicate with others. If one group is normalizing, marginalizing, or otherwise to a certain group of people, and it is a large hub, certainly marginalized groups will develop their own groups rather quickly. Also, certainly some of these groups will still maintain contact with the marginalizing location also for various legitimate reasons. Thus, I would argue that socially the communication still exists among these groups and there ultimately will be important moral discussion. And further, I think that if there are spaces that are largely deemed unethical, and if they are relatively closed off, perhaps they will eventually die out. Or perhaps what this group is saying will explode to the forefront if they feel what they are saying in their sub-forum social group is suppressed by the larger online social groups. Still, this is not fully adequate to discuss whether or not Facebook, for example, causes serious moral grievances and what the power dynamics between it and people means for its future development.

Certainly with closed off, smaller spaces what has been suggested has happened, and occurs frequently on Reddit, often infamously when decisions are made to shut down sub-forums, and because of the nature of Reddit, it seems that it immediately becomes a much larger discussion. Because of this larger discussion, the very notions of how Reddit moderators manage moral standards on its pages have frequently come into question. Because this does occur, it would seem that there are places where there are dynamics of group morality which relate closely with how people “vote with their feet” and that frequently, these discussions happen in a very public way in the larger community. In this sense, one cannot simply discount the dynamic nature of the connections between groups, and how those dynamics inform groups that may not immediately seem connected. These certainly are not silos of information that we discussed earlier.

Infamously b/ on 4chan has influenced much of the online world with its morally questionable shenanigans.6 I would go so far as to suggest that there is not a living person in Europe or the U.S. between the ages of 15 and 55 that has not been culturally influenced by b/ in some way, whether they would know it or not. Perhaps even if they did know, it could be advisable for them to say otherwise at present. If one knows of b/, one most definitely has been influenced, and the very fact that one might deny it is acceptance of the fact that moral interests are considered with online communities that we claim to affiliate with in much the same way we affiliate them with our offline governances. In fact, one might go as far as to say our notions of Westphalian sovereignty have been flipped upside down entirely because of online social platforms.7 It could be that the very idea that geographically based communities are the basis of a morally understandable community are deeply mistaken.

In Summary

Firstly, it would seem at least clear at this point that one could argue that online social groups are actually less of a filter than offline. These groups are more or less interconnected, and that degree of connectedness also inherits direct their connected moral discussion that become a part of social groups. Perhaps, instead we should consider online spaces as the first time we could observe the filter directly. If one wishes to question this any further, one merely has to question the same ideals among academic invisible colleges.8 These are much smaller and much more closed off to social groups at large. There are a significant number of academic groups with fewer people than the number of people you meet in a weekend. Would you or would you not consider your own academic writing group conversing on broad (and specific) social moral dilemma in and outside of your social group? If not, then academia as a whole has failed to do its job. So we should be careful if only for pragmatic reasons what we claim necessary amounts of ethical discussion to qualify a social group a “community” unless we are not worried about invalidating our own social experience.

Secondly, it seems that it could possibly be contested that online spaces are spaces without morals. But in the course of considering this, it seems one has to reckon with the fact that they do indeed require multiple sets of user agreements, group policies, group norms, and so forth that frequently are not internally consistent from group to group that one uses. I do not see this as necessarily without moral. Instead I see it as a fertile ground to consider what it looks like when an individual has to account for various philosophies of “right” and “wrong”.

Finally, if one is to take these considerations and believe them as a potentially correct way of thinking, it would seem that perhaps they might not communities, not because they create homogeny or they lack a moral compass, but because they imply that we question the nature of Cartesian principles of individuals’ relationship to a community. It seems we individually have the ability of embodying different identities simultaneously in order to maintain a pragmatic commitment to so many different moral codes and social goals. Perhaps online social spaces are not communities because they challenge individuals to accept they are actually an aggregation of multiple competitive identities where community requires at least internal consistency of our own goals in our votes. In an offline community, we only get one vote, at one ballot box, with one set of feet. Online, we vote with feet we didn’t know we had.


Image Attribution: Alexander O. Smith

  1. Baym, Nancy K. “The Emergence of On-Line Community.” In Cybersociety 2.0: Revisiting Computer-Mediated Community and Technology, 35–68. SAGE Publications, 1998. 

  2. Firth, J. R. “A Synopsis of Linguistic Theory, 1930-1955.” Studies in Linguistic Analysis, 1957. 

  3. Tiebout, Charles M. “A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures.” Journal of Political Economy 64, no. 5 (October 1, 1956): 416–24. 

  4. Lazer, David, Alex (Sandy) Pentland, Lada Adamic, Sinan Aral, Albert Laszlo Barabasi, Devon Brewer, Nicholas Christakis, et al. “Life in the Network: The Coming Age of Computational Social Science.” Science (New York, N.Y.) 323, no. 5915 (February 6, 2009): 721–23. 

  5. Pentland, Alex. Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread-the Lessons from a New Science. Penguin, 2014. 

  6. Phillips, Whitney. This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. Reprint edition. The MIT Press, 2016. 

  7. Bratton, Benjamin H. The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. MIT Press, 2016. 

  8. Crane, Diana. Invisible Colleges; Diffusion of Knowledge in Scientific Communities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972. 

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