Sunday, July 28, 2019

Bad Metaphors: "Community"

From Real Life Magazine, July 22, 2019:

A false shorthand for unity provides a cover for corporate interests
BAD METAPHORS is an ongoing series that takes a critical look at the figures of speech that shuttle between technology and everyday life. Read the others here.

Community is a hot commodity. In marketing copy as in political rhetoric, the term is ubiquitous: Both the Green New Deal and Zuckerberg’s 2017 “Building Global Community” diatribe repeatedly invoke the word “community” (26 and 108 times, respectively), usually when more accurate words like “userbase,” “neighborhood,” or just “group” would suffice. Community, in this context, is presented as an unassailable good: something to be recognized, maximized, and protected.
Communities are assumed to be happy things, with constituents that agree with each other because they are more or less the same kind of people with the same values. They represent the goldilocks zone of social relations: not too impersonal, not too individualistic — just right. The assumption is that community, rather than an unaccountable individual or faceless bureaucracy, is the appropriate scale for important work; and that communities always act in the best interest of their constituents. As such, the metaphor deceives, providing a convenient cover for the interests of macro social structures like nations and corporations. It also depends on a misinterpretation of how communities actually function.
Believing that a global brand or a nation is a community sells 
the idea that community is a service you can sign up for

The very notion of community exists in direct relation to society, two social units with distinctive characteristics that, rather than being entirely separate, represent a spectrum of types of human interaction. Societal relationships consist of the complex apparatuses required to maintain large-scale civilizations. The clerk at a department store, your congressional representative, and the coder who helps to build your social media platform of choice: these are people with whom you have a societal relationship. By contrast, community members share a bond that is voluntary and based on shared values and beliefs. It is this deep bond that makes mutual aid without sophisticated accounting systems (read: money) possible. A neighbor will lend you a cup of sugar; a grocer will not. Society is a materialist relationship necessitated by forces such as markets, corporations, institutionalized religions, and nation states. Community, on the other hand, is affective, a social bond that offers feelings of solidarity and belonging. It is this affective element that platforms like Facebook seek to harness.

Whereas the 20th century was largely about reckoning with modernization’s push from “community” to “society,” this young century has seen multiple attempts at reconciling the two: feeling a sense of community within a complex society. “Community” evokes authentic human relationships, or at least the possibility of their existence in a society that craves those valid connections. Because the underlying goal of most late-capitalist market entities is to satisfy appetites — often appetites they themselves create — corporations and government officials latch onto the metaphor to appeal to consumers and constituents. Since at least the early ’90s, as Naomi Klein first outlined in her book No Logo, corporations have found that more profit can be made from selling an intangible feeling of belonging than a quality product. This has the dual benefit of reducing costs (marketing is relatively cheap to produce) and increasing prices by charging a premium for brand appeal. Brands from Nike to Starbucks aimed to represent a preexisting social relationship that one could access through buying their products.

This community-by-association is a powerful force for brand loyalty, which is why tech companies want to deploy this feeling at all levels of customer experience. In nearly every Apple advertisement from 1984 to the invention of the iPod in 2001, computers and gadgets were presented as the necessary final ingredient to an individual’s creative genius; but as Apple shifted heavily into selling handheld devices meant for consuming media, they also began leaning on the idea that to own their products was to be a part of a community: iPhone ads barely mention technology at all, opting instead to show poignant, intimate moments with the device capturing or mediating the experience. As Starbucks showed in the ’90s, the feeling of inclusion can justify higher markups: Apple calls their flagship stores “town squares” that act as venues for events, not just shelves for products. Their App Store bundles everything from TikTok to the lesbian dating app Her into a list titled “Find your Community.” In a recent press release about new tools to prevent bullying on the platform, Instagram sounds like a caring middle-school principal: “We’ve heard from young people in our community that they’re reluctant to block, unfollow, or report their bully because it could escalate the situation, especially if they interact with their bully in real life.” Amazon Ring’s attendant Neighbors app, which allows users to receive and share police alerts as well as reports of suspected criminal activity — and whose high susceptibility to racist profiling has been discussed — urges that “together we can create stronger communities.”

To wield the community metaphor requires three steps: invoke discomfort or fear among the target population that they are not members of the community; show them the benefits and terms of belonging; and finally, offer them a seat while outlining the rules that let you stay. These three short steps draw the individual’s attention to the crushing freedom of modernity — you can be anything, which also means you can fail at creating a self — and then offer a reasonable set of instructions to zeroing in on an identity, a role to play. Facebook portrays itself as an antidote to FOMO: the cool hangout where all your friends are. The company makes itself necessary not just by highlighting what you gain access to in using it, but by what you miss out on if you do not: event invites, group chats, meme references, and so on. Its “community standards” sound like something a group of like-minded, invested people decided on together, not a document written by lawyers. Believing that something as big as a global brand or a nation is a community creates a mental bridge to believing — or selling the idea — that community is a service you can sign up for....