Communities, Audiences and Scale: eight years on
Eight years ago Clay Shirky penned his Communities, Audiences and Scale, pointing out the difference between the TV world of one-to-the-masses communication which scales to infinity, and many-to-many community communication, which in the form of forums and blog discussions at the time, had an upper limit to its potential success:
With such software, the obvious question is "Can we get the best of both worlds? Can we have a medium that spreads messages to a large audience, but also allows all the members of that audience to engage with one another like a single community?" The answer seems to be "No."
Communities are different than audiences in fundamental human ways, not merely technological ones. You cannot simply transform an audience into a community with technology, because they assume very different relationships between the sender and receiver of messages.
Though both are held together in some way by communication, an audience is typified by a one-way relationship between sender and receiver, and by the disconnection of its members from one another -- a one-to-many pattern. In a community, by contrast, people typically send and receive messages, and the members of a community are connected to one another, not just to some central outlet -- a many-to-many pattern. The extreme positions for the two patterns might be visualized as a broadcast star where all the interaction is one-way from center to edge, vs. a ring where everyone is directly connected to everyone else without requiring a central hub.
There are many communities still around today that struggle with this scale issue. Glow, the national schools intranet, while it has 650,000 registered users, cannot hope to facilitate meaningful discussion between them all - or even hundreds of them - with the groups-based discussion-board infrastructure on which it relies. The Scottish Governments' efforts at blogging a couple of years back were abandoned after the First Minister received over 4,500 comments - and was unable to answer or converse on any of them.
However, I'm wondering whether the advent of friendfeed and Twitter-type 'streams' of communication do really lend themselves better to scalable communities, as one might be tempted to believe (and as venture capitalists and creative technologists never stop implying).
Or as danah points out in her 'streams' paper, and as Blonde's Phil and I felt this morning discussing the joy of a Christmas lull in online communication, is there merely more skimming on the top of a wave of communication, rather than flow within it, and siding with voices and arguments that we find easy to hear, rather than getting down into the depth of what we're trying to say and challenging our preconceptions?