The Destruction of Community and the Rise of the Fan Club
Via the miracle of YouTube, I spent the last hour or so watching a lecture the late Neil Postman gave in 1998 at Calvin College in Michigan. In it he brought up a compelling idea (actually dozens of them, but here I’ll just focus on one) about how technology has changed our definition of community. Traditionally, communities have been united by broad commonalities (e.g., geography, culture, history, etc.) even as the individual members of the communities differed on many particulars. Indeed, the trick of making a community function was for the individual members to find a way to work around their differences and disagreements to create a socially cohesive unit. Take away the negotiation and compromise on the points of difference and the points of commonality would not be strong enough to hold the community together.
Yet when we talk about communities in the age of interactivity, we often mean something very different. More often that not we are referring to a group of people who are in near total agreement on a particular topic. Because technology makes it easy–indeed almost effortless–to create new communities, people who find themselves in any sort of disagreement in an existing community need not work through their differences. They can simply start their own community where they do not have to put up with the annoyance of dissent. This may seem like a dream for a marketer who will benefit from gathering together a group of people who are deeply loyal to a brand, but a community it is not. It is a fan club. (Indeed, in its political incarnation it can become something much more troubling–a walled compound of people who would rather enter into an infinite loop of mutual affirmation than engage in honest and thoughtful debate. Insert your favorite–or least favorite–cable news network here.) Remember that the word fan comes from “fanatic”–a person with extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal.
But my purpose here is not to talk politics; I leave that for a different time and a different blog. In the age of social media, marketers throw around phrases like “online community” as if we all agree on what they mean. I submit to you than we don’t. As more and more brands venture into the interactive space, the ones who succeed will be the ones who are honest with themselves about whether they are looking to create a community or a fan club. Uncritical enthusiasm may seem appealing, but ultimately stronger brands are built on the support of those who see our warts and want to help us heal them.