Community equals sum media

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Davis Foulger
Oswego State University

How does one build, maintain and, if necessary, rebuild, communities.


The focus of this conference is civic and community communication. While
the very definition of what a community is can be a matter of debate, it
remains that concerns about the erosion of local communities have been
mounting since the middle of the 20th century. The scapegoats for this
decline are many: television, automobiles, work pressures, declining
religious and family values, Shopping Malls, and WalMarts are just a few
of the more popular laments. It remains that, regardless of source, the
decline of geographically propinquitous communities is real. A counterpoint
to this decline has been found, over the last 25 years, in the rise of
virtual communities. The communities are often bound by neither space
nor time, but rather by common interests.


The common ground in both the decline in geographically propinquitous
communities and the rise of virtual communities is the relative decline
and rise in the use of media in these communities.

In Taylor, Groleau, Heaton, and Van Every's "The Computerization of Work:
A communication perspective" (2001), an organization is described
(following Morgan, 1986) as "a very special kind of object/subject. As an
object, it has no substantiality. It is associated with a physical
infrastructure ... but, in and of itself, it is none of these. Fundamentally,
it is no more than an idea, a construction of the imagination." Taylor, in
this work and others, promotes the idea that an organization is a conversation
and a text, in which the conversation creates a text of collective knowledge
and the text structures subsequent conversation.

The same can be said for a community. It is a product of social imagination
that occurs in the intersection of conversations between community members
that build up, over time, into a text of shared experiences, knowledge,
values, and ways of doing things together, including having conversations.
These conversations occur within the context of media. These texts are stored
within the context of media.

A community doesn't die when a plant closes, or a shopping mall opens three towns
over, or a Walmart opens at the edge of the next town, or one person more or
less embraces a particular religious philosophy. It dies when people stop
talking to each other. When a downtown area closes a town has one less place
to get together as a town. When people stop going to religious services they
have one less opportunity to interact with neighbors. When a person commutes
an hour each way to a job in a nearby city, there is less time to chew the fat
with neighbors. When a local newspaper closes or local radio station starts
taking a national feed there is one less place for the community to share local
information. And bit by bit the text of the community fades and the conversation
with it.

A community doesn't arise from a virtual nowhere because its participants
couldn't have talked about there interests with their neighbors. They simply
had an easy communication channel to other people who weren't simply tolerant
of each others odd interests, but are genuinely interested in the same things.
Chats build into e-mails, shared web sites, Instant Messenger sessions,
telephone calls, and even real life meetings.

A community can therefore be imagined as an ecology of media in which more is
better, and in which a diversity of media act to support the others. The
availability of these media enables the conversation, supports storage of the
text, and re-enforces the community.


If you want to build up a community, you need to enhance the opportunities that
members of the community have to communicate. There are two basic ways to do

  • enhance the range of media that community members have to interact with each other
  • increase the use of existing media within the community

Both solutions are important, and support each other. You probably can't stop
a nearby WalMart or shopping mall from pulling people away from your downtown
community hub. But you can invent new reasons for people to come together in
your downtown area, and perhaps build a new base in the process.

Small communities probably can't readily stem the tide of people commuting to
jobs in nearby cities, and thereby spending less time in town, but they can
provide network connectivities (web sites, community bulletin boards,
community calendars, community discussion groups, etc) that help to tie
commuters back to the community even when they are are work.

These ideas are intended to be suggestive of ways in which communities can build
up their local media ecology's even as other forces diminish them. They cannot
return us to the "idyllic" past. Network technologies do enable new communities,
and those communities are unlikely to dissapear anytime soon, but local
communities can be maintained and enhanced so long as attention is paid to
maintaining the conversation and text that is that community; and this
maintenance is performed by sustaining and expanding the range of media
in which that conversation happens.

The notion of a community as an ecology of media is summarized by the summary

in which C = Community, M = Medium, and U = Usage of Medium.

It suggests that we build communities by building a communities communication
infrastructure and finding ways of encouraging its use within the community.

Many papers at this conference appear to support this general notion. Support
can also be found in parts of the extant digital divide literature. Foulger
(2001), for instance, provides evidence that a bridging of the digital divide
may require an earlier bridging of the telephone divide, and perhaps other
media divides as well.

This is an evolving concept, and discussion is welcomed.

Pattern status: