An Ornery Answer

I’ve generally agreed with most of the readings so far this semester, but this week I found myself skeptical on a few points (perhaps my “crap detector” was overly sensitive this week).

Closeness in Online Communities

Rheingold enthusiastically presents the benefits of online communities, but most of his examples of truly strong communities had non-digital aspects. He talks about having dinner with people he met online, having a picnic for 150 people in an online group, and raising money to support families going through cancer. Interestingly, this actually fits with the first definition given by Merriam-Webster for community: “a unified body of individuals, such as people with common interests living in a particular area.” This understanding of community has a physical and even geographic dimension.

To be clear, Rheingold does distinguish between networks of “weak ties” and communities. He writes, “To me, the difference between an online social network and a community has to do with the quality, continuity, and degree of commitment in the relationships between members” (pg. 163). I agree that there is a difference between your broad social network and your actual community; however, I’m still not sure how to reconcile the physical/geographic aspect of community included in Webster’s definition and in Rheingold’s examples with a solely online group. I think it is certainly valid to develop online relationships and strong groups that support each other without ever meeting in person. Turkle has numerous examples of this as she discusses people absorbed in Second Life, online games, or other digital worlds. Yet as Rheingold’s own examples prove, his most meaningful online relationships also have an offline connection.


Herriman Community Newsletter.

Managing Your Network

Rheingold’s point about social capital and cultivating your network certainly resonates with most professional development advice today. He discusses reciprocity and doing things for others as an investment for when you later need help yourself. I approach networking a little skeptically because I don’t just want to be using people for my own gain. According to this Forbes article, I’m not alone, and studies have shown that networking leaves some people, especially those lower in the power hierarchy, feeling “physically dirty and morally impure” (Morin).

I think networking is effective when people are bound by a common goal, have a more nuanced  relationship, or have a mutually beneficial situation. Rheingold argues for the return on investment for “weak ties,” but it seems to me that most weak ties never produce tangible outcomes (although arguably it takes only that single “weak tie” to help you land your dream job). A professor once advised me to connect with people on LinkedIn only who I knew well enough that I would be comfortable introducing them to someone else. In the sprawl of friends-of-friends, that’s a tough line to maintain, but I think it’s a good standard. Unlike Rheingold’s approach of collecting contacts even beyond Dunbar’s rule of 150, I think we can embrace the age of networking without just ballooning our friends list or using others.

The Power of “The Long Tail”

Rheingold introduces the concept of the “long tail,” and Chris Anderson adds as the first rule of the long tail to make everything available. This assumes that both the “trash” and the “hits” maintain their individual value independently of each other. However, I think that making more available can actually detract from the value of the “hits” by making them harder to find and decreasing overall usability. Anderson hints at this in his third rule and with the example of, but he comes at it from the angle of leveraging the hits that people like to filter and identify obscure music that they might also like.

I think this approach misses the heart of the issue. People don’t want to wade through the long tail — they want to jump right to the best. The current economic model of elevating the hits and ignoring the long tail serves as an initial filter to identify what people are most likely to want. Yes, there are casualties as high-quality things are undervalued and fall into obscurity because of outside factors, such as marketing and promotional money, instead of based on their own merit. However, limiting the number of options instead of making all available helps cut through potential choice paralysis. As in the famous jam experiment, people buy more when they have fewer options (Tugend). This returns to the idea that we discussed earlier this semester, where technical writers serve as mapmakers or navigators. Consumers are looking not just for everything possible, but for direction toward what is best. An overwhelming number of options can actually make it harder to find the greatest hits and detract from the overall experience.  


Behavioural Econcomics.



Behavioural economics ideas that you can use in UX design. Retrieved from

Community. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2016, from

Morin, A. (2014, Sept. 11). How to network without feeling dirty. Forbes. Retrieved from

Tugend, A. (2010, Feb. 26). Too many choices: A problem that can paralyze. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Posted on October 30, 2016, in Digital, Society, Trust and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I totally agree with you about online communities not necessarily needing a face-to-face component. In some cases that might only strengthen the group and, in the specific case of post-Katrina New Orleanians who I’ve studied, can promote civic action. See Actually I think they are better in person because a lot can get lost in their shuffle of googlegroups listserv emails, blogs, and other social media.

    To be fair, Anderson’s piece is from 2004, so I think we’ve come a long way and actually can get to the “best” faster, or at least algorithms can get us there faster. And I don’t think this is an ornery answer at all! I always encourage students to read with *and* against the authors. And some of these pieces are older than others but I feel valuable. I wonder if I should group more chronologically than topically in future semesters?

    • It’s interesting to think about the online communities that have an offline tie, as opposed to those that are totally digital. Your example of post-Katrina recovery is obviously based on a very real-world connection and shared experience. Yet jebehles post for this week was about a community based solely on an online game with no real-world effect. I think both types of communities can be effective and lead to strong relationships, but operate in different ways.

      Yes, it’s interesting to see how social media has developed since some of the earlier readings were published. A chronological or timeline look would certainly shed a different light on where we are today and what the future might hold.

  2. I would agree that the strongest online communities do leak into the “real” world. But in my experience, the communities and the bonds between their members form before they ever meet offline. It takes quite a bit of trust building before most people are comfortable meeting in real life. Many people who thrive in online communities are extremely introverted or shy (or both!). It’s a pretty big step to meet somebody away from that comfort zone. And there’s always the chance that the person you “know” online isn’t the same person who you end up meeting–or could be downright dangerous.

    But once you’ve bonded with somebody through chat or Skype or a game or an online forum, and once that trust is there, you really do want to meet them.

    I would guess that Rheingold’s experiences were similar. The members of his communities bonded online, and only then did it overflow into the real world.

    • Just a side note, I found it really interesting in boyd’s article “Social Network Sites” that she says that the majority of the time, people use social media to augment already existing, real-life friendships. The research presented argues that it’s less about networking with people you’ve never met and more about adding another dimension to existing relationships by staying in touch online.

      On one level, I agree with your comment that online feels “safer,” and I would expect an enormous amount of trust before the community is willing/able to connect without digital mediation. However, my personal experience supports boyd’s research in that most of my online “community” began offline first — with this course possibly being the exception!

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