Commercializing Community

No online community with a collective identity has successfully become a large business like the segregated, follower-based communities of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Youtube. Strangely, it is the retailer Amazon (proprietor of acquired communities Twitch, Goodreads, IMDB and DPReview) who has the most sophisticated understanding of collective identity online communities of any modern mega-corp.

C.S. Lewis used to say that for each new book he read, he would read two old books — books written before he was born, preferably. The point to this seemingly odd reading habit was to avoid the blind spot — every age has a blind spot, a obsessive passion around which everything else must fall or be crushed. Much like ages, each profession also has a blind spot of the same sort.

Technology is no exception.

So what is the blind spot of the technology world? I would say it’s human nature. Engineers have a very bad habit of making people into manipulable objects — for instance, “the soul is software, and the body is hardware.” The analogy might be a good one, but it’s also, like most analogies, decidedly not the whole story.

This belief that we can build a community based purely on technology, or that we can somehow commercialize a community like Reddit, is a symptom of this problem. You just can’t treat communities — people writ large — like an object that can be built, adjusted, and will then cough up a profit on demand. It’ll work for a little while, perhaps, but people just aren’t built that way over the long run. You can try to gain commercial value from such a community, but in trying to manage the community for commercial purposes — commercializing community — you risk destroying the community itself — for many of the same reasons you risk destroying an economic system when you try to control it centrally.

It’s not even a matter of being able to control large, complex, system — humans are a different class of problem than a large network. Life isn’t just a higher order of complexity — it is, as the guard said in The Wizard of Oz, a horse of a different color. It’s unmitigated hubris to think we can “manage” humans in the way a large scale network of computers can be managed or controlled.

Perhaps what we need to do is to read some books that lie outside our immediate world of technology — a little philosophy, or even (God forbid) a bit of religious reasoning, or perhaps a strong dose of economics.

Or maybe just some old books.