I begin with the belief that effective, playful, interesting communities that people want to participate in are derived from bottom-up practices and are based around negotiating the contingencies of everyday life rather than the application of some grand plan. To make lasting and important connections between individuals there has to be a sense of luck and decision, i.e. that “chance and love” stuff that Dana Heller wrote about in her post. Without these elements of discovery what we are left with are the impositions of others that quickly devolve into obligations. You may get a lot of "work done" on deadline — an obliged professional always does — but those connections will have little chance of sustaining themselves beyond their initial assignments. Such are the thankfully brief lives of "task forces" and "blue ribbon committees." When developing any community, whether it be through Mediacommons or another online space, this should be kept in mind.
I say this thinking about the community of scholars with whom I engage, very few of them whom I "chose." The same holds true for my research, where my initial intentions were much more influenced by classes I happened to take than the line of research I wanted to engage. Remember that saying from graduate school about roaming the stacks? “It isn't the book you are looking for that will change your dissertation. Instead, it's the one next to the one that you are looking for that will change your dissertation.” The organization of the library — the arrangement of books by subject matter — is the kind of pedestrian planning of serendipity that elevates scholars and knowledge alike. The only people that notice if it isn't there may be the librarian, but they put those books back on the bookshelf with the purpose that one might converse with a larger, older community of ideas.
Like Dana Heller, I, too, have fretted over this question of how to make an online scholarly community. That word, "community," bothers me. In the modern American context community is abused and is all too often used in conjunction with others to form phrases such as “community living", "home owner's communities", or "campus communities". When I see these terms my skin crawls precisely because they include the promise of a commons that may be pleasant but is often anything but diverse, let alone fun. The administrative declaration that we create community is a thinly veiled call to a common set of standards with which we can work on "together". Worse, this "together" tends to be the first step into the elimination of eccentricities and contesting visions. At the same time it simply makes for more work. When community becomes obligatory, then community becomes an obligation, i.e. another job I would rather not perform. It's this vision of community as some sort of planned "togetherness" that Jane Jacobs, the great critic of twentieth century urban planning, derided when she noted that, "'togetherness' is a fittingly nauseating name for an old ideal in planning theory. This ideal is that if anything is shared among people, much should be shared" (Jacobs 1961, p. 72). For Jacobs this kind of obligation to share drives cities apart because "where people do share much, they become exceedingly choosy as to who their neighbors are, or with whom they associate at all" (Jacobs 1961, p. 63).
Jacobs' remedy for this kind of obligatory togetherness was to point out how modern cities that so many "master planners" wished to “rationalize” worked because the very inefficiencies the planners hated were the things that created community. Walking from space to space, not getting everywhere quickly and running into people you hadn’t plan to meet constituted the world of "lowly, unpurposeful and random contacts”, the everyday assemblies of congested urban cores emphasizing pedestrian culture, densely concentrated four and five-story buildings with mixed uses. For Jacobs, it was out of the efficiency of swift, simple and often forgettable associations that happened in places Greenwich Village or Boston Commons that "the small change from which a city's wealth and public life may grow" (Jacobs 1961, p. 72). Planning community has much more to do with planning for moments of chance and kismet than planning how to "work together". When we walk across a campus and through our hallways we spend a lot of avoiding running into others, some of whom are the sources for happiness. Many times it is that person who you had forgotten about that provides you that joke, smile or passage you use to get through your day.
The closest thing I have to a virtual sidewalk or hallway for my scholarship exists in my daily interactions with Facebook and Tumblr. Jokes, memes, rants, clips, exhibits of digital banality, may be a virtual sidewalk of insignificant displays, but they have made my academic life more playful, enjoyable and interesting than any conference or colloquia. They have also garnered me a few friends that I wouldn't have had while helping me sustain connections with others that I might have simply forgotten. Not that conferencing and twenty minute presentations accompanied by bad sandwiches, coffee and the occasional piece of fruit aren't important. They are. Yet every grad student knows these formal presentations and placements can never take the place of sloppy thinking and laughter generated at a pub table or a party when it comes forming community. The reason for this is the same reason that Jacobs valued cities. When you leave a focused presentation and go to out into the general public you encounter “interweaving of human patterns” with “people doing different things, with different reasons and different ends in view” (Jacobs 1961, p. 229). As scholars we should be encouraged to leave the egos we invest in our "work" behind and think about all of those other people and their intentions on our campuses, online and in other spaces in a search for connections, discovery and new bonds. To put it simply, when it comes to the community of an online space, a sidewalk or coffeehouse, it can never really be about you. In the case of community it must always be about the people around you.
Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York, New York, Vintage Books.