Social agency and the intersection of communities and networks (draft)

by Ulises A. Mejias


Different meanings have been ascribed to the concepts of ‘community’ and ‘network’ throughout history, and particularly since the emergence of the internet. In this paper, I suggest definitions for these two concepts based on how social agency is distributed between humans and code, and outline a set of research categories for studying communities and networks in terms of the types of involvement they offer, the kinds of participants that inhabit them, and the types of action they afford. I then discuss Agre’s (2004) model of civic participation to illustrate how action that unfolds across online and offline social realities can engender increased relevancy of the world (ontological nearness).

I. The online production of unsustainable social structures

During the early days of the internet, we developed a habit of seeing online experiences as an alternate part of reality. We believed that actions could begin, unfold and conclude entirely online without any repercussions to things offline, and thus concluded that virtuality had its own set of ethics and values that did not correspond to the rest of reality. Based on this view of virtuality as an alternate, value-less reality, many authors have argued that the kinds of social realities that take are formed online are not sustainable from a normative point of view.

Borgmann (2004), for example, compares online and offline communities, and suggests that commodification is the distinguishing feature that separates the former from the latter. “To commodify something economically is to pull something that is outside of the market into the market” (p. 64), and Borgmann argues that online communities commodify the cultural production of social space:

“The Internet is culturally commodifying by its nature. It frees us from the limitations of space and time… What happens in fact is that commodification reduces ourselves and those we encounter on the Internet to glamorous and attractive personae. Commodification becomes self-commodification, but shorn of context, engagement and obligation, of our achievements and failures, of our friends and enemies, of all the features that time has engraved on our faces and bodies—without all that we lack gravity and density.” (p. 64)

In contrast to these commodified communities, Borgmann describes what he calls final communities:

“[F]inal communities are ends rather than means, or more precisely, they are the groups of people where one finds or works out one’s reason for living… The point is that final communities require the fullness of reality, the bodily presence of persons, and the commanding presence of things. Any attempt to secure the fulfillment of one’s deepest capacities and aspirations in and through cyberspace will founder on the shoals of commodification.” (p. 63)

Obviously, Borgmann sees any attempt to form final communities by using the internet as bound to fail: “Use of the internet at home leaves people feeling lonely and unhappy” (p. 65). This is a dichotomous view of online and offline communities, where there is no weaving or back-and-forth between the two. But as I will consider below, cannot the experience of social realities online contribute at all to final communities?

A similar critique to Borgmann’s is posed by Dreyfus (2004). He argues, following Kierkergaard, that to escape the anomie of modernity one needs to form unconditional commitments. This type of commitment establishes “qualitative distinctions between what is important and what is trivial, relevant and irrelevant, serious and playful” (p. 77) in life, determining what we hold to be significant in it. Of course, unconditional commitments make us vulnerable, because what we believe in may disappear or turn out to be false. But it is precisely this risk, according to Kierkergaard, that produces a strong identity and gives individuals a perspective on the world.

Dreyfus then wonders whether the internet can encourage and support unconditional commitments. He concludes that, similarly to Kierkergaard’s assessment of the Press and the Public Sphere, the internet does not necessarily prohibits but definitely undermines unconditional commitment:

“Like a simulator, the Net manages to capture everything but the risk… [I]f we are sufficiently involved to feel as if we are taking risks, the simulations can help us acquire skills. But insofar as [they] work by temporarily capturing our imaginations in limited domains, they cannot simulate serious commitments in the real world… [T]he risks are only imaginary and have no long-term consequences. The temptation is to live in a world of stimulating images and simulated commitments and thus to lead a simulated life.” (p. 78)

Dreyfus ends by arguing that unconditional commitments can only be formed when the identities, knowledge and skills we develop online are transferred to the real world, where the risk becomes real. This is, however, practically impossible (according to Dreyfus) because the nature of online experiences inhibits this very step: “Indeed, anyone using the Net who was led to risk his or her real identity in the real world would have to act against the grain of what attracted him or her to the Net in the first place” (p. 78).

In the rest of this essay, I aim to demonstrate that these critiques are somewhat absolutist. Online experiences are indeed no substitute for the ‘real’ thing: allowing computer code to assume a large degree of social agency does sever ontological ties to the offline world. But code can also assume social agency that affords ontological nearness in different (and potentially enhancing) ways. Clearly, as numerous seemingly contradictory studies demonstrate, virtuality can be a site for both alienation and engagement, anomie and identity formation, commodification and commitment. The social agency of code can augment the social agency of humans in powerful new ways, and the challenge is to design systems which integrate the two in ways that encompass online and offline spheres of action.

II. Research categories for the analysis of social agency in communities and networks

Although we have suspected that virtuality and actuality can not be completely de-linked (Deleuze [1994] shows how they are part of one and the same reality) we are just beginning to understand how new forms of social action unfold in a back-and-forth movement between the two, weaving online and offline social realities. I use the concepts of community and network as a way of exploring the distribution of social agency across online and offline realities.

The words community and network have been given many different meanings, to the point that it is difficult to provide exact definitions (according to Hillery, 1975, there are fifty five ways in which the word community can be used). Here, I wish to differentiate between these two concepts in terms of how social agency is distributed between humans and machines. First I will present general definitions and some examples, and then discuss in more detail the categories that can be used to analyze these terms.

  • A community is a social reality comprised of humans and objects where humans retain most of the social agency.
  • A network is a social reality comprised of humans and objects where humans delegate social agency mostly to objects.

[By ‘object’ I mean any tool or material devised by humans to facilitate social formations. In the context of this essay, I mean specifically computer hardware and code.]

Some examples: My neighborhood is a community. It is comprised of humans and objects such as houses, roads, etc. However, what makes my neighborhood a community and not a network is that social agency resides mostly with the inhabitants of the neighborhood. While the objects determine to an extent what form social interactions take, humans largely determine their content: roads and yards may determine who my neighbor is, but only I can determine what kind of relationship I have with him or her.

On the other hand, I would argue that eBay is a network, not a community. It is comprised of humans and computers/code. What makes eBay a network and not a community (in my definition) is that social agency resides mostly with the code: it largely determines the form and the content of social transactions, limiting them to buyer and seller roles. Of course, humans still have a degree of agency to act as good or bad buyers or sellers (social agency is never entirely allocated with humans or with objects), but the whole point of eBay is that the code tries to assume as much of that agency as possible to reduce frictions.

In order not to mislead by associating communities with low-tech social formations and networks with hi-tech social formations, as I did above, let me give an additional example: According to the above definitions, the blogosphere is a community. It is comprised of humans and computers/code. While the code determines the form of social interactions possible (textual discourse, mostly), humans still retain a lot of the freedom to choose the content (in other words, they retain social agency).

Some clarifying points should be made about the above definitions.

  • In the context of the internet, communities can be ‘hosted’ offline or online, while networks (where social agency rests with computers and code) are exclusively online formations (this will become an important point later, when I discuss the transfer of action from communities to networks).
  • The drawing of the line that indicates where the bulk of social agency resides is not something that can be determined objectively. I am not suggesting a formula for calculating how social agency is distributed, but proposing a framework for discussing these issues. For example: are MMPORGs (Massive MultiPlayer Online Role Games) communities or networks? Different folks may have different opinions about that.
  • While theories exist that try to determine the number of social contacts humans are capable of maintaining (e.g. Dunbar number), group size is not an important consideration in this definition of communities and networks, since what matters is how social agency is distributed.
  • Notice that these definitions do not suggest any kind of qualitative assessment. A community is not better than a network. They merely serve different purposes, as I will describe later. Likewise, calling something a community or a network does not give us any information about the kind of community or network it is (functional or dysfunctional, intent on doing good or harm, etc.).
  • In trying to visualize the relationships between communities and networks, we should not imagine neatly arranged and occasionally intersecting circles in a two dimensional space, but something much more chaotic and fractal. Networks exist across communities. Communities emerge within networks. Communities generate affordances that give shape to things that are not communities but networks, which in turn give shape to other communities.
  • Although I said that in communities humans retain most of the ability to determine the form and content of social interactions, they never have complete control over them. Even in the simplest form of face-to-face interaction, our systems of meaning production (language, technology, etc.) take some of that control away from us. That’s why communities and networks, in the sense that I am using them, represent not discreet concepts but a continuum of options [thanks to Chuck Kinzer for helping me realize the last two points].

The following set of categories can help us clarify some of the positions along that continuum, and articulate what specifically makes a social structure a community or a network (I have adapted some concepts originally explored by Alfred Schutz in The Phenomenology of the Social World, published in 1932):

  1. Types of involvement
    Immediacy: This indicates the distance, across time and space, between social actors. While this might no longer seem a very relevant measure (given how —we are told— technology annihilates temporal/spatial distances) it is still important to consider the implications of ‘nearness’ between actors who are temporally or spatially far vs. ‘farness’ between actors who are temporally or spatially near (c.f. Movable Distance, Mejias 2005). Thus, I would argue that immediacy is still an important factor to be considered in determining the nature of communities and networks.
    Intensity: This describes the strength with which actors perceive social phenomena to the exclusion of other phenomena. For example, face-to-face conversations have high intensity, whereas examining a list of resources shared by a group on a computer screen has comparatively lower intensity (as I indicated earlier, this does not mean that high intensity scenarios are better than low intensity ones; these concepts are simply ways to aid in research). An assessment of intensity can help us determine how communities and networks redistribute the actor’s attention and energy to be employed elsewhere. It could be said that the internet as a whole has lowered the intensity of social interactions but allowed that energy and attention to be employed in new forms of social interactions that were previously not possible.
    Intimacy: Here I am borrowing from Walther’s (1996) categories of impersonal, interpersonal and hyperpersonal social interactions. Impersonal interactions are those that contain low levels of personal information (ideal for goal-oriented settings). Interpersonal interactions are those that contain higher levels of personal information, and allow participants to develop or sustain social relationships beyond just getting the job done. Hyperpersonal interactions are those in which actors have technological means to control the personal information they wish share (means that they would not have available in regular face-to-face interactions). In other words, hyperpersonal social interactions involve the ability to form interpersonal social relations “without the interference of environmental reality” (Walther, 1996, p. 32). An assessment of intimacy can help us research how communities and networks enable or impede the sharing of personal information.
  2. Types of participants
    Consociates: Schutz (1967) defined consociates as those social actors that could be directly experienced by the individual. To him, spatial and temporal synchronicity was a requirement for direct experience, so consociates according to this definition were people we could meet face-to-face. Given the role that technology plays in communication nowadays, I would include in the category of consociates actors that may be spatially or temporally distant, but whom we can engage directly (although through various layers of mediation). So anyone we engage directly —even through a low-bandwidth asynchronous medium such as email— is a consociate.
    Contemporaries: This group, according to Schutz, is composed of actors that are indirectly experienced by the individual: “We can say that, living with my [consociates], I directly experience them and their subjective experiences. But of my contemporaries we will say that, while living among them, I do not directly and immediately grasp their subjective experiences but instead infer, on the basis of indirect evidence, the typical subjective experiences they must be having” (p. 142-143). Jyri Engeström argues that social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object (his and my use of the term ‘network’ seems to be in alignment here). It is precisely in networks and not in communities, I would argue, that people interact indirectly through and object (a picture in Flickr, a link in, etc.), but not directly with each other (unless they choose to do so). Thus, they are contemporaries, not consociates. Parenthetically, we can say that while information and communication technologies are generally grouped together (hence the term ICT), we can differentiate between them to say that communication technologies have increased the number and reach of our consociates, while information technologies have increased the number and reach of our contemporaries. It is important also to note that to Schutz, consociates and contemporaries were “two poles between which stretches a continuous series of experiences” (p. 177). In other words, social reality is defined by multiple and ongoing transitions between direct and indirect experiences. Online interactions increase the potential to move between these two poles. For instance, someone might be part of a network of contemporaries, but then I might directly engage this person electronically, which would make this person a consociate (even if I never meet him or her face-to-face). An assessment of the type of participants can help us examine how communities and networks facilitate direct and/or indirect social interaction.
  3. Types of action afforded
    Online-Oriented action: Acts which are intended to conclude online, regardless of whether they begin or unfold online or offline. For example, an online service that collects data or resources from users and aggregates it into some form of online digital repository (such as Flickr) can be said to facilitate cyber action, even though acts (the taking of pictures) begin offline.
    Offline-Oriented action: Acts which are intended to conclude offline (i.e., in the ‘real’ world), regardless of whether they begin or unfold online or offline. For example, an online service that provides the means for users to organize face-to-face meetings (such as can be said to facilitate offline-oriented action, even though acts begin and unfold online. A group of Flickr users that gets together at a café has taken an online-oriented act and transformed it into an offline-oriented act to fit their purposes. Thus, in terms of the analysis of communities and networks, these two categories can help us track how intentionality flows back-and-forth between online and offline social realities. Again, these concepts by themselves do not suggest a normative difference; i.e. offline-oriented action is not better than online-oriented action or vice-versa, although I will discuss below why offline-oriented action is a requirement for certain types of ontological nearness.

III. The social agency of code

I suggested above a classification scheme whereby in communities social agency rests mostly with humans, and in networks it rests mostly with computer code. I would like now to draw out some of the implications of this, and address the misguided notion that when code assumes most of the social agency it is automatically a recipe for unsustainable social realities.

Elsewhere (Mejias, 2005, Tag Literacy), I have described how the code of distributed classification systems (DCSs) such as Flickr and assumes certain social tasks. According to the definitions I provided above, I would characterize Flickr and as networks, not communities, because social agency rests largely with the code, not with the users. As I argued, the code of DCSs removes the need for humans to negotiate meaning around classification. It would be simplistic to say that this is a good or a bad thing, since the possibilities can be liberating as well as alienating. Liberating because these networks remove the need to have a central authority dictating what classification scheme should be used. Alienating because, once the code assumes the responsibility for negotiating the meaning-construction that comes with defining a taxonomy, meaning becomes atomistic: a reflection of what the software has parsed and aggregated from detached individuals, not what has emerged through deliberation, exchange of ideas, and consensus.

If we are willing to make some broad generalizations, we could characterize networks as having, for the most part, low immediacy, intimacy, and intensity; as being conformed of contemporaries, not consociates; and as facilitating online-oriented, not offline-oriented action. But does this mean that when code assumes most of the social agency the resulting social realities are unsustainable, dysfunctional, or useless? It is possible, but not necessarily the case. By reducing human involvement in social agency, networks achieve something that would otherwise be impossible: the sharing (real, not metaphoric) of social meaning at a very large scale. Obviously, what is shared is defined very explicitly and narrowly, but the interesting thing is that it can be shared more broadly and quickly than ever before.

Minor changes in the characteristics of a network can have significant repercussions to how social agency is distributed. Consider a network such as, where immediacy, intensity and intimacy are low, and it is comprised of contemporaries. However, the fact that this network facilitates offline-oriented action (in the form of pressure on politicians) instead of virtual action has very different implications for our assessment of what type of social reality we think it is. In the case of, social agency still rests largely with the code, and what is shared is a very explicitly defined object (e.g., an email whereby you can simply reply and send a message urging your Senators to stop buying non-functional Star Wars missiles). In this case, members of the network don’t even intereact indirectly through this object. But because it can be shared so broadly and so quickly through the network, it can be transformed into a very powerful kind of action (political pressure).

My point is to try to dispel the notion that when social agency is largely assumed by the code (as happens in networks) the results are normatively unsustainable. At the same time, however, I have not addressed the question of how networks can contribute to the formation of final communities or engender unconditional commitments. In other words, can networks contribute to ontological nearness in any meaningful way? Next, I argue that it is only when networks intersect with communities oriented towards offline-oriented action that ontological nearness becomes a possibility.

IV. Offline-Oriented action and the intersection of communities and networks

In order to explore the dynamics of social realities that encompass both online and offline spheres of action and that lead to ontological nearness, I’ve chosen to look at the phenomenon of civic participation in an era of globalization and ICTs.

First, a couple of words about civic participation. In a democracy, the ability to shape public opinion holds great power. Public opinion is used to justify major actions by the state, like sending people to fight wars. In a utopian version of democracy, public opinion is something that emerges out of free debate (the media reports and we decide, as the dubious slogan goes). In practice, however, we know that public opinion is something that can be manufactured and used by groups with special interests to manipulate masses. Organizations with PR know-how are thus the real engine of democracy, and the best we can hope for is that all sides of the political spectrum have equal access to the means of shaping public opinion. We know that, as a matter of fact, they don’t.

Enter the internet, which has supposedly leveled the playing field and democratized the power to shape public opinion. No longer —we are told— are the mass media monoliths the only ones capable of producing and disseminating messages, but anyone with a website or blog (and an audience) can in theory do the same. But how exactly does the process work? How can individual citizens use the new technologies to shape public opinion, to make their voices heard among millions of other voices, and mount a veritable challenge to those who can shape public opinion at a mass level? We intuitively know the potential is there, but we have not yet completely understood how to exploit it.

One possible approach to civic participation is the one described by Philip E. Agre (2004). I will briefly outline the approach first, and then describe how it involves the weaving of online and offline social realities and unfolds at the intersection of communities and networks. The approach is called issue entrepreneurship:

“[I]t is central to the political process that individual citizens, in their public personae, are able to associate themselves with issues. Citizens, whether politicians or activists, make their political careers in entrepreneurial fashion by identifying issues that are coming to prominence, researching and analyzing them, staking out public positions on them, and building social networks of other citizens who have associated themselves with related issues, especially those whose positions are ideologically compatible. Not only is this kind of issue entrepreneurship central to the making of public policy, but it is also central to the “politics,” in the broad sense, of nearly every institutional field…” (Agre, 2004, p. 211)

In other words, Agre suggests that the most practical way to change the world is to take up a cause one feels passionate about, research it, articulate one’s position, join others interested in the same issue, form solidarities with groups that share similar ideologies, put pressure on the government and on society to recognize the issue, and set the agenda for what needs to be done.

Obviously, this is not as easy as it sounds. Citizens need to be extremely motivated to engage in this process. But can the internet make their job any easier?

“In particular, the issue entrepreneurship theory argues that the main democratic potential of technologies like the Internet does not rest in their ability to support deliberation. Instead, it rests mainly in their ability to support the work of issue entrepreneurs: identifying and researching emerging issues, distributing analyses of current events to an audience, organizing events, and networking with other entrepreneurs…” (Agre, 2004, p. 214)

So while technology cannot relieve us from any of the hard work, it can make our actions more effective. With new information and communication technologies at their disposal, issue entrepreneurs can promote their issues across the dimensions of space, institution and affinity (I have adapted these variables from Agre’s issue lattice), forming new and powerful social realities. Let’s consider each one of these dimensions individually.

issue entrepreneurship

While previously most of our social connections where formed locally, new technologies allow us to extend our reach to form global connections. Thus, we can form or join communities or networks interested in the same issue across local and global settings. For example, a person interested in issue X can form connections with others interested in issue X not only within her local community, but can get online and join others interested in the same issue all over the world.

Likewise, while previously we were limited to form connections within the institutions that we belonged to, now thanks to technology it is much easier to form connections across other institutions interested in the same issues. For example, let’s say the person interested in issue X works at a hospital. Thanks to ICTs, it is much easier now for this person to connect to people in other hospitals, or in other institutions such as schools or businesses interested in issue X (in other words, people interested in similar issues but spread across different institutional settings).

Finally, technology allows us to broaden our connections with people interested in different issues, but with similar affinities. This means that new technologies make it easier for person interested in issue X to form alliances with others interested in issue Y, as long as issue X and issue Y can be approached from the same ideological framework (for example, someone interested in affordable housing in location E can form solidarities with someone interested in resisting regentrification in location F, because both issues are somewhat related).

Thus, issue entrepreneurship can unfold across a variety of online and offline social realities, and in the process shape public opinion by facilitating the identification and dissemination of issues through communities and networks. Needless to say, if this form of activism is undertaken as the mere marketing of social causes, and is not backed up by a strong civic and moral education, the potential for abuse of the system increases exponentially, as Gary Jones suggests:

“Perhaps the greatest impediment to improved social structures will be resistance from those dedicated to exploiting information cascades to achieve power and skew social behavior for gain. Activists of all stripes work to develop manipulative skills to cause cascades. They aren’t interested in wisdom or good governance, they just want to make the sale, stampede the herd, win. They don’t seek to inform, they seek to persuade. They don’t value dissent, they demonize dissenters and try to marginalize them” (2004).

But at its best, issue entrepreneurship can promote ontological nearness because it represents a system oriented towards grounded (not ‘virtual’) action. In other words, it affords opportunities to take what is learned and achieved online through the advantages that the social agency of code affords, and apply it offline, reclaiming our social agency. Ontological nearness (c.f. Mejias, 2004, Moveable Distance) implies an increase in relevancy. Yes, the delegation of social agency to code can momentarily obstruct this process, but it can also contribute to it in the long term. From a design perspective, the challenge is to design systems where opportunities to increase relevancy in networks trigger opportunities to increase relevancy in communities, and vice versa in a feedback loop. From a pedagogical perspective, the challenge is to figure out how issue entrepreneurship (and other forms of activism) can be learned in the context of using the new technologies of connectivity.

Increased relevancy leads to unconditional commitments and the formation of final communities, but it is important to realize that in our age this is not only the domain of communities. It’s true: networks will never be final communities. But they can facilitate the formation of final communities, and thus contribute to the formation of unconditional commitments. We are at a point in time when networks are becoming integral parts of communities, and communities integral parts of networks.

There is no such thing as a virtual community. All communities are Real. Some communities exist in intersection with networks, and networks engender and transform communities, even communities not directly connected to networks: notwithstanding the Digital Divide —which is not going away anytime soon— networks allow communities to extend certain benefits to people who do not have access to technology (as we’ve seen lately, for example, in the recovery response of networks and communities to natural disasters). When communities and networks begin to intersect online and offline, and when this is accompanied by an education that emphasizes our responsibilities in the world and the possible ways to fulfill those obligations, we see that anomie decreases and relevancy increases, and with it the potential for a better world.

Offline References

Agre, P. E. (2004). The practical republic: Social skills and the progress of citizenship. In A. Feenberg & M. Bakardjieva (Eds.), Community in the digital age: Philosophy and practice (pp. 201-223). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Borgmann, A. (2004). Is the internet the solution to the problem of community? In A. Feenberg & M. Bakardjieva (Eds.), Community in the digital age: Philosophy and practice (pp. 53-67). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Deleuze, G. (1994). Difference and repetition. New York: Columbia University Press.

Dreyfus, H. (2004). Nihilism on the information highway: Anonymity versus commitment in the present age. In A. Feenberg & M. Bakardjieva (Eds.), Community in the digital age: Philosophy and practice (pp. 69-82). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Hillery, G. A. (1975). Definitions of Community. Rural Sociology, 20, 111-123.

Walther, J.B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 20(1), 3-43.

Join the Conversation


  1. Ulises, I started to read your article as a distraction from my own paper writing; I have not finished reading, but I am eager too. With that caveat I have to ask about your distinction between community and network, as well as your locus of agency. Isn’t a “community” (and usually a “network”) mediated by language–the ultimate object–to an even greater extent than hardware and code mediate a “network”; in fact, couldn’t one argue that language is the means by which social realities emerge and propagate? If true, does that mean that human beings relinquish their agency to language? By calling language a “means,” I make my answer obvious: human are the agents who apply the means. Your answer may be equally obvious in the unread portion of the paper; either way, I look forward to reading on.

  2. John, you make good points about language. As you suggest, language mediates pretty much every human activity. However, I don’t think we can say that it mediates “to an even greater extent than hardware and code,” just differently. And it is precisely those differences that I am interested in exploring. Your point is well taken, though, and I will try to at least make a reference to the issue of language in the next draft. Thank you.

  3. Fundstück: i d e a n t: Social agency and the intersection of communities and networks (draft)

    Als Ergänzung zum vorangegangenen Postimg wird hier der Vesuch unternommen, Communities und Networks zu definieren und Unterschiede und Gemeinsamkeiten zu beschreiben: i d e a n t: Social agency and the intersection of communities and networks (draft)

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