How social media is redefining the concept of community

Today, the concept of community transcends any physical boundaries and seems to describe just about any kind of interaction between individuals, from sharing memes to organising political protests. Andrea Guariglia explores the new meaning of community in the social media era.

By Andrea Guariglia

Community is a funny word. It would have once just referred to a group of people living or working together, largely restricted by geographical location or social class, but increased migration of people and diversification of interests led to the creation of more complex interactions between people within society, creating ethnic communities, religious communities, or communities with a common interest such as a sport or a hobby. Today, however, the concept of community transcends any physical boundaries and seems to describe just about any kind of interaction between individuals, from sharing memes to organising political protests.

Whilst some people might still feel virtual communities and real-life communities are different, they are becoming increasingly interwoven; the internet has become the critical tool for social interaction in society. Local communities have been brought together by social media, one example being the use of twitter to organise a post-riot clean up in London in 2011. This brought together locals who had never met before but felt moved by the same feelings. The group ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ has used exactly this model and now has over 25k twitter followers, using social media as a tool for encouraging people to keep their local areas clean.

The balance between online and offline community is also evident in the art world, which is perhaps best highlighted by the success of Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Infinity Mirrors’ exhibition, described as the world’s most instagrammable art because of its brightly coloured polka-dot patterns and clever mirror installations. Tapping into social media has allowed art galleries to reach a wider audience – a friend recommending an exhibition via a social media post will generate much greater FOMO than a billboard ever could. A 2014 exhibition at Seattle’s Frye Museum, #SocialMedium, was actually created by public votes on social media, resulting in the showing of selected artwork alongside voters’ comments. The campaign boosted Frye’s Instagram following by 349%, and their Facebook likes by 86%, but more importantly, it brought people together both online and in the real world.

Artists too are increasingly relying on social media, since they can go directly to their audience, get validated without a gallery, and bypass the elite nature of much of the art world. The ease of communication opens new avenues, with some Instagrammers such as Jack Morris and Lauren Bullen being paid up to $9000 for a single post on their adventure travel pages which have millions of followers.

Perhaps one of the biggest stories this decade has been the influence of social media on politics. From Donald Trump to Jeremy Corbyn, social media has proven to be pivotal, but the reason for their success has been the strength of the communities which they have tapped into online. The grassroots left-wing movement Momentum organised itself almost exclusively through social media and established several local groups across the UK in order to attract floating voters, and particularly young voters, who might not otherwise have engaged with politics. Equally, alt-right communities, largely on 4chan and Reddit, have become infamous for spreading and crystallising opposition to mainstream liberal movements including feminism, multiculturalism, and socialism, and instead typically promoting white nationalism. The coming together of these communities online allows sparse voices to gain strength and political significance where they otherwise might not have, and has played an especially important role in making the LGBTQ+ community heard and respected, leading to a wave of social change across the globe.

Ultimately, the directness and speed with which individuals can broadcast their ideas creates a universe of possibilities for social interaction at a scale never seen before. Communities are increasingly founded on ideas, and people who would otherwise have been alone in their beliefs can connect with like-minded others. To some, the idea of online communities is laughable, but the reality is that they are here and they are significant.