Can online communities become “Knowable communities”? By, Isabella Daniele, Kaylee Tang & Tenzin Tsundue

Imagine landing in a foreign village. How long would it take for you to familiarize yourself with the community, the surroundings, their norms, and cultural practices? In comparison, how different would it be to know everything about a city? Is it even possible? Now imagine being part of an online community, how much of this community is knowable?

The concept of knowable communities by Raymond Williams refers to a community of people who know of each other and share certain features and similar conditions. The class system, and sense of hierarchy and prestige structure a community in a particular “knowable” way.  Williams noticed that communities became less knowable with the transition from village to city life.  Communities become even more complex on the internet, which blurs physical boundaries, creating opportunity for infinite connections and communications. Here we explore how far it is possible to “know” online communities (OC), drawing upon our three ethnographic research projects.

A meta-analysis by Faraj et al (2016) suggests that membership of a specific OC is determined by varied and complex sets of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, which in turn influence levels of participation and affiliation. Online communities exist across different social media and may be newly formed without any physical basis, or extensions of an already existing off-line community.

Isabella’s research on a parish community that used to meet in person but moved online due to the current COVID-19 situation is an example of the second type. Members knew each other in person before the pandemic. Isabella found that the online Facebook page actually enlarged the community, increased participation, and increased knowability. Churchgoers who were once bound to just the physical space of church and to one specific day of the week could view their companions’ Facebook profile, gaining a glimpse into their hobbies and networks.   Tenzin studied an online-only community that followed the Facebook page of a specific Buddhist teacher. Members of this community on this Facebook page is globally dispersed and membership involves merely a “like” on the Facebook group page. Followers share a search for spiritual knowledge and are aware of each other only through their own Facebook profile and interactions via comments and likes. Even less contained are platforms like Instagram where the online community could include up to million followers. Kaylee studied groups constituted around an online authority figure, among them a social activist group created by a high school student who came to be viewed as an authoritative knowledge provider on certain topics. 

In Williams’ scheme, knowing a community requires understanding its hierarchy. In online communities, hierarchies among the members can be verified from their level of participation and their content. Certain groups tend to form organically even in online platforms. For example, in the Parish group, it was easy to note which people were new to Facebook, a bunch of family members who kept greeting each other, and passive participants. In Tenzin’s Facebook page certain followers were regular commenters who either agreed, disagreed, questioned and even trolled the information provided. 

Our research indicated that some aspects of an OC can be known, such as the central figure, common cause, functionality, and membership. At the same time, the different shields present in online communities, be it the privilege of anonymity, ease of access or infinite number and their connections make OCs highly impenetrable both for the members and ethnographers.

Faraj, Samer, et al (2016). Special section introduction—Online community as space for knowledge flows. Information systems research 27.4: 668-684.

Williams, R. (1969). The Knowable Community in George Eliot’s Novels. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 2(3), 255-268. doi:10.2307/1344936

Connell, J. (2013, September 09). Knowable Networked Communities. Retrieved from