Some Thoughts on Community
I am an anthropologist. More specifically, I am an archaeologist. And even more specifically than that, I am interested in communities. Sounds simple and boring, but the concept of community is so complex and integral to being human. What is a community? Who decides who is “in” and who is “out”? What does community membership mean to individuals and what role do subcommunities play in relationship to other subcommunites?
When I entered into the Digital Humanities world earlier this year, it did not occur to me that this particular sliver of my anthropological interests would end up being in the forefront of my mind. But in my interactions with other DH scholars at conferences over the last couple of months, the thing I was perhaps most surprised and impressed with was the sense of community that is involved in creating, recreating, and using open-source content management systems and other digital tools. It’s easy to get caught up in a simplistic notion of community that requires members to be in close, semi-regular geographic proximity to one another. But in the digital age, you do not need to ever even meet a person to build community with them. DH tools are “community builders” in the sense that they help disseminate information to the general public and thereby create a community of site users, united by their interest in a particular topic and despite physical/geographic separation of members. In fact, CMS’s can be set up so that the public can personally contribute to projects, giving them power and voice they may not have otherwise had. Projects that allow the public to upload photos or videos as part of a scholarly project (or otherwise contribute contact, as in commenting or sharing a story) are so exciting to me. They connect the academic world to the non-academic world (something that needs to happen more often, in my opinion) and can equally benefit all involved parties. In projects like that, the exchange is never one way. It is dynamic and dialectical.
Besides this, another way that these CMS’s serve as community builders is through the creation of a forum through which users can “give back” by contributing original themes and plug-ins for other users to incorporate into their sites. This builds communities in a technological sense- that is, communities of individuals who are interested in technologically advancing the applications themselves. Questions and answer forums are a good example. You are a community member if you are a contributor. And you are contributor whether you post a question or an answer. The power of technology to create practical tools combined with its ability to unite and empower is amazing, and I’m pretty sure that, for those of us who are interested in building these communities up even further, the best is yet to come.