An audience is not a community

Clay Shirky has a new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. It’s about technologies of social networking.

I don’t know if this is in the book; Shirky wrote it for a blog from his publisher, Penguin:

A good deal of user-generated content isn’t actually “content” at all, at least not in the sense of material designed for an audience. Instead, a lot of it is just part of a conversation.

Mainstream media has often missed this, because they are used to thinking of any group of people as an audience. Audience, though, is just one pattern a group can exist in; another is community. Most amateur media unfolds in a community setting, and a community isn’t just a small audience; it has a social density, a pattern of users talking to one another, that audiences lack. An audience isn’t just a big community either; it’s more anonymous, with many fewer ties between users. Now, though, the technological distinction between media made for an audience and media made for a community is evaporating; instead of having one kind of media come in through the TV and another kind come in through the phone, it all comes in over the internet.

As a result, some tools support both publication and conversation. Weblogs aren’t only like newspapers and they aren’t only like coffeeshops and they aren’t only like diaries — their meaning changes depending on how they are used, running the gamut from reaching the world to gossiping with your friends.

I couldn’t shake this out of my head after I had read it.

Newspapers used to be centered in communities. Now they are mostly not. People in much of North America don’t even live in communities.

Is this why newspapers are dying? Because there are no communities?

I heard about someone asking a speaker how we could get young people to read newspapers. Reportedly, the speaker took rather a long pause before replying. When she did speak, her answer was essentially, “We can’t.”

This makes a lot of people feel sad. Others feel angry.

But this is not about newspapers.

It’s about what Shirky said: Audiences are not the same as communities, and communities are made up of people talking to one another.

What does a community need? How should journalists supply what communities need?

21 Comments on “An audience is not a community

  1. Communities need a place to gather. This is an important role a newspaper can still play: Becoming a hub for the community. In this model, the newspaper becomes a place for people to connect and help and learn from each other. The newspaper plays a moderating role, helping the conversations remain civil, and productive.

    And this doesn’t have to be just online. It’s too easy to think only about the digital implications. Opening up the physical newsroom, creating public spaces in the newspaper’s building, can help enhance and deepen and define a feeling of community.

    In either case, if the newspaper can bring people together in a meaningful way, and help them do things in their lives, it could regain its role as a vital part of civic life.

    At the San Jose Mercury News next month, we’re going to host a “Copy Camp.” This is a day-long conference where we’ll bring in folks from the community to talk with our reporters about how we cover race and demographics in the South Bay. It’s a chance to build connections, spark new ideas, and move forward together. It’s an experiment, but the hope is that it becomes a new model for how we relate to our community.

  2. Communities let any member start a conversation.

    On a forum, anyone can start a new thread. With blogs, anyone can start their own and write a post. With newspaper websites?

    Not so much. Sure comments can let someone comment on how the newspaper is covering something, but there can’t be any discussion of what the newspaper isn’t covering.

  3. Yep, that’s in the book. 🙂 That’s actually one of the key points in the chapter called “Everyone is a Media Outlet.”

    Glad you liked it.

  4. Yo, Clay, hello! I just dropped the book into my Amazon cart. I searched for ages last night trying to find a table of contents somewhere online and couldn’t! Bit of an oversight, isn’t it?

  5. Two things:

    Instead of using the terms “community” and “audience,” I’ve talked about Shirky’s concept by using the notion of moderated and unmoderated discussions. Because communication across communities broader than a small neighborhood used to require the existence of a moderator, like a newspaper. Hence “The Bintel Brief,” a column in the Jewish Forward that allowed immigrants to discuss adapting to America and other issues, through the moderation of the paper. Or, in fact, classified ads. A variety of changes — the ubiquity of e-mail, with the ease of sending to multiple recipients; online social networks; the development of blogging software that eased the path to quickly updated sites — all these things are eliminating the need for moderators. (A caveat: There are limits, I think, to our ability or desire to keep up with unmoderated discussions. I love the blog Comics Curmudgeon, but when I started reading it, only a few dozen of us were commenting. Now, the site’s become so busy that I limit my reading to the blog items themselves; the comment discussions can quickly become time consuming. If I were as dedicated a comments reader/participant as some of them, I probably wouldn’t have the time or inclination to take part in some other groups. Like, for instance, this one!)

    Second, to your statement that people don’t live in communities anymore: I’ve argued that what we’re seeing instead is the divorce of community from geography. I see young adults who use cell phones, text messaging and blogs to keep in much closer touch with the group of friends they developed in high school or college than was ever possible in the not-so-distant past. If you are in virtually constant contact with people around the country, they form your community — and then why would you care as much about what’s happening in your physical neighborhood? This is a key part of the challenge for media, I think, and one reason to worry about the “local, local, local” mantra now being preached for newsroom success.

  6. The decline of “community” in local life is pretty well documented in the “social capital” language of Robert Putnam.

    I think the decline of local media consumption is both a cause and an effect. Conversely, anything that raises the overall level of civic engagement ultimately benefits journalism by creating demand, and anything that gets people to follow local news is likely to increase civic engagement.

    I advocate an activist role for the local newspaper as a catalyst and a convener of community processes, with that role playing out in very different ways online and offline. This is sometimes at odds with the arms-length, observationist assumptions that journalism students absorb (or may be taught).

  7. A community is an active being, and the media that failed before with their active responsability of informing and denounce the good and the bad, under the influence of some sort of interests, will die in the end. The media who can’t stand the community’s questioning won’t be able to stand on it’s feet, but those who are open to the needs of the community – that like any other being is in constant evolution- will stand in the shoulders of the no longer passive crowd. For too long,many media thought,with some arrogance, of being smarter than their audience.

    Communities now are being defined by the concepts shared rather than on factors like geography,race,gender,social status.The dialog among the members of the community and their interaction with the media puts the journalistic work under the biggest magnifying glass ever. Is it harder to be a journalist now? I don’t think so. I think now it’s just more difficult to be dishonest. And the full awareness of who is our target community and honesty is the basis for what a good journalist must provide these days.

  8. Mindy,

    I wrote a post last year about why newspapers don’t appeal to young people (, and it’s because young people — post college — don’t live in areas long enough to build a sense of community.

    People rarely stay with one job like our parents did. Thus people will keep moving more and more. That further erodes the value of community journalism.

    I think my situation is rather typical of a new grad. I’m moving around the country, and I’m no longer apart of the community I grew up in. In fact, in the past year I have lived in: Chagrin Falls, Ohio; Rockville, Maryland; Alexandria, Virginia and now I live in Silver Springs, Maryland (I should be here for at least the next year).

    Since leaving college I have not been in an area long enough to get a strong sense of community. Thus the community journalism model does not work for me. I never once read the weekly Alexandria newspaper (despite getting it free weekly) because I only lived there for six months, and I never felt like it was my home.

    Young people care about ideas and niches, not about traditional communities. A news product that attempts to appeal to that traditional community sense will largely fail with someone my age, simply because we have no attachment to a community.

    But that doesn’t mean I don’t read and consume certain Web sites daily. I’m a huge fan of Engadget and Buzz Out Loud. I check several times a day. Thus, I am an active audience member of many online communities, but I have not taken hold in any traditional community.

    Young people my age consume a lot of content. We really do like journalism. We, however, typically are not big fans of traditional media. It was built for a different audience in a different era.

    And to get angry at us for not liking a product not developed for us is foolish at best.

  9. This one may not be popular:

    Communities need to be small.

    Real community happens within groups of around 200. Much more and people start to lose track of each other.

    Take a look at the community in my life: I have a smallish group of close friends (maybe 25?) surrounded by a much larger group of acquaintances and connections.

    Maybe we could start to grow community based on the model we naturally use to form relationships. A social network provides the larger group context, but how can we enable a bunch of “mini networks” where people can really connect and take ownership?

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  13. My latest post about generosity as a business model mentions a bit of this excerpt. I’m very excited to read the book.

    Civic duty, community and media are all tied together in ways I’ll be chewing on a bit more through the next few weeks.

    I think newspapers have always been at the center of community, but at some point we lost that ideal.

    What really blows my mind is how this community swing is happening in the digital arena much like what was described in The Fourth Turning and Millennials Rising by Neil How and William Strauss, as well as their subsequent surveys of college students.

  14. Hang on a minute … What’s happening here? How did a piece about community get sidetracked into a piece about newspapers? Is this a cutting edge version of the principle that allowed newspapers to annexe the term “print journalism” to themselves?

    Magazines have been serving communities ever since the Journal des Scavans (or whatever the latest research has identified as the protoype magazine) and they continue to do so. These communities usually have no geographical proximity, but a very strong proximity of interest.

    Specialised websites also serve communities. I could cite my own use of GuitarNet, where people who have never met each other face to face happily share problems, solutions, anecdotes, advice. There are thousands of similar sites and a couple of the comments above reflect that accurately.

    None of the above share anything other than interest and (usually) goodwill. There is no explicit “civic duty” or any other formal commitment. Shirky is exactly right – audience is not the same as community and just having a physical presence in a geographical community
    does not guarantee you either an audience or a community.

  15. @Tim Holmes: I didn’t mean to imply that only newspapers can create community, or play an important role in community. You’re very right that just being there (like some newspapers) doesn’t make you part of a community.

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  18. I think the answer everyone is touching on to your questions of “Is this why newspapers are dying? Because there are no communities?”
    is that newspapers arent understanding the nature of communities and how theyve evolved.

    In one of my first ever blog posts in 05 i was examining why newspapers were unaware of the very own disconnect with their geographic community.

    In that post I defined news simply as events that matter. Part of the function for journalism and bloggers alike, then, is to answer: what is it that matters, to whom does it matter, how much does it matter, and why.

    Note that nowhere in that equation is “location” a factor.

    This is why Im also very passionate about covering international news on your local site and making it relevant ( I ‘d agree wholeheartedly with Kroll’s post above).

    So the what and where are a lot less important now than the why and to whom and how much. Newspapers dont — and wont — get that.

    As others have posted , communities increasingly gather around issues or interests. Even your neighborhood association or city council district is driven by issues and problems for that location, rather than some perceived inherent birthright magically bestowed by virtue of its GPS coordinates alone.

    Fabulous blog, Mindy, btw – just now discovered it. Itll be a regular watch, because Im very interested in how journalism needs to be taught these days.

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