What if finding your online community hurts others?

The beauty of participatory and social media has always been its ability to connect people. That is also the great evil of these platforms.

Social media allows what Barry Wellman calls networked individualism. In contrast to geographic or familial communities where we are brought together through accidents of fate like where or with whom we were born, networked individuals are not forced to conform to community norms to fit in. Instead, they can use network technologies to maintain their individual quirks and find others who share their unique interests and ideals in online communities. This is a beautiful and terrifying vision.

Frankenstein
“Frankenstein” by Britta Frahm is licensed under CC by 2.0

A year ago today, 10 people were killed and 16 injured when a young man rented a van and drove it onto the sidewalk. The perpetrator engaged in this action, as part of an “incel” or “involuntarily celebate” rebellion. The incel group is a group of men online who openly express misogyny and claim that they should be “given” women to have sex with. The attack targeted women. Incel communities on the internet celebrated following the attack.

The incel community is a group of networked individuals. So are international terrorist networks. But so is #MeToo and so are communities of hobbyists, bakers, support groups for new mothers and a wide variety of wonderful and horrible communities.

We must consider the entire spectrum – and the role of social media business models in both the positive and negative online communities. On this anniversary of the Toronto van attack, we need to reflect on our own communities and how they both connect us to, and isolate us from others. And we need to ask how much we allow ourselves to view those outside of our communities as “other”.

For more reasons than social media, we live in a time when our divisions feel acute. What if our communities lead to others getting hurt? Can we live with what we have created?

Frankenstein’s monster was both beautiful and terrible. The world did not know how to cope with the monster, and the monster did not live easily in the world. Perhaps we have a better response to the monster that lies before us now. The question remains whether this creation can fully be integrated into a flourishing human community.

What if finding your online community hurts others?

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