Knowable Networked Communities

Raymond Williams, in The Country and the City, pondered the change in attitudes in English society, as portrayed in the literature of that country produced between the 16th and 19th centuries, brought about by the related processes of industrialisation and urbanisation, by the inexorable shift from country to city.

In a chapter entitled Knowable Communities, he describes the kind of community that Jane Austen wrote about in the first two decades of the 19th century:

Neighbours in Jane Austen are not the people actually living nearby; they are the people living a little less nearby who, in social recognition, can be visited. What she sees across the land is a network of propertied houses and families, and through the holes of this tightly drawn mesh most actual people are simply not seen. To be face-to-face in this world is already to belong to a class. No other community, in physical presence or in social reality, is by any means knowable.

I wonder if there is any analogy between this notion of a selectively knowable community and the digitally-based networked communities that many of us now find ourselves increasingly a part of? Is there a sense in which these largely-virtual, and often only partly face-to-face, communities are expressions of a similar kind of selective acknowledgement by their members of who does and who does not belong to them?

Williams recognizes the role of perception here. He notes, for instance, the shift in attitude between Austen and George Eliot. Eliot, writing half a century later than Austen (although, in most of her novels, writing about the same period as Austen), chose to write about the people who, in her predecessor’s novels, fell between the gaps in the mesh. As Williams notes:

There can be no doubt.…that identity and community became more problematic, as a matter of perception and as a matter of valuation, as the scale and complexity of the characteristic social organization increased.

Eliot chose to give voice to the ordinary country people as well as to those who lived in the big country houses; however, the voice she gave to the farmers and the craftsmen was often a characteristic one rather than a truly individuated one. She extended the notion of the knowable community but not perhaps the truly known community. Where Jane Austen’s novelistic idiom is closely ‘connected with the idiom of her characters’, the same, according to Williams, cannot be said of Eliot:

It is clear that George Eliot is not with anyone in quite this way: the very recognition of conflict, of the existence of classes, of divisions and contrasts of feeling and speaking, makes a unity of idiom impossible. George Eliot gives her own consciousness, often disguised as a personal dialect, to the characters with whom she does really feel, but the strain of the impersonation is usually evident.…

Of course, class is no longer (or very rarely) the determining factor in who is perceived as belonging to digital communities, but I would question whether the main determining factor is mere connectedness. Is the minimum qualification of a willingness and the means to join today’s social networks enough? (And by ‘social networks’ I do not mean simply the likes of Twitter or Facebook — I am here talking about the myriad living, authentic and viable social networks that form and fluctuate through, between, across and beyond any individual social technologies or applications.)

There must be an extent to which many such communities today are self-selecting, but equally I can’t help feeling that a greater or lesser element of exclusivity must also play a part in many of them. Elitism can take many forms today, and many of the social networks we see continually forming, de-forming and re-forming around us, are, in some senses, highly elitist in nature.

Social organization is increasingly complex today, undoubtedly, and the perception and valuation of social validity must affect just how knowable a community can be for each of us. Identity is critical since it influences how we identify with others, with their views, with their values and with their words and actions. The shift from the physical world to the networked world is at least as far-reaching in its implications for those of us living through it as the earlier shift was from country to city, and our willingness to extend our own horizons beyond the known, beyond the familiar, beyond the comfortably consensual will determine the extent to which we are willing to extend the boundaries of our knowable networked communities.