BAD METAPHORS is an ongoing series that takes a critical look at the figures of speech that shuttle between technology and everyday life. Read the others here.

Community is a hot commodity. In marketing copy as in political rhetoric, the term is ubiquitous: Both the Green New Deal and Zuckerberg’s 2017 “Building Global Community” diatribe repeatedly invoke the word “community” (26 and 108 times, respectively), usually when more accurate words like “userbase,” “neighborhood,” or just “group” would suffice. Community, in this context, is presented as an unassailable good: something to be recognized, maximized, and protected.

Communities are assumed to be happy things, with constituents that agree with each other because they are more or less the same kind of people with the same values. They represent the goldilocks zone of social relations: not too impersonal, not too individualistic — just right. The assumption is that community, rather than an unaccountable individual or faceless bureaucracy, is the appropriate scale for important work; and that communities always act in the best interest of their constituents. As such, the metaphor deceives, providing a convenient cover for the interests of macro social structures like nations and corporations. It also depends on a misinterpretation of how communities actually function.

Believing that a global brand or a nation is a community sells the idea that community is a service you can sign up for

The very notion of community exists in direct relation to society, two social units with distinctive characteristics that, rather than being entirely separate, represent a spectrum of types of human interaction. Societal relationships consist of the complex apparatuses required to maintain large-scale civilizations. The clerk at a department store, your congressional representative, and the coder who helps to build your social media platform of choice: these are people with whom you have a societal relationship. By contrast, community members share a bond that is voluntary and based on shared values and beliefs. It is this deep bond that makes mutual aid without sophisticated accounting systems (read: money) possible. A neighbor will lend you a cup of sugar; a grocer will not. Society is a materialist relationship necessitated by forces such as markets, corporations, institutionalized religions, and nation states. Community, on the other hand, is affective, a social bond that offers feelings of solidarity and belonging. It is this affective element that platforms like Facebook seek to harness.

Whereas the 20th century was largely about reckoning with modernization’s push from “community” to “society,” this young century has seen multiple attempts at reconciling the two: feeling a sense of community within a complex society. “Community” evokes authentic human relationships, or at least the possibility of their existence in a society that craves those valid connections. Because the underlying goal of most late-capitalist market entities is to satisfy appetites — often appetites they themselves create — corporations and government officials latch onto the metaphor to appeal to consumers and constituents. Since at least the early ’90s, as Naomi Klein first outlined in her book No Logo, corporations have found that more profit can be made from selling an intangible feeling of belonging than a quality product. This has the dual benefit of reducing costs (marketing is relatively cheap to produce) and increasing prices by charging a premium for brand appeal. Brands from Nike to Starbucks aimed to represent a preexisting social relationship that one could access through buying their products.

This community-by-association is a powerful force for brand loyalty, which is why tech companies want to deploy this feeling at all levels of customer experience. In nearly every Apple advertisement from 1984 to the invention of the iPod in 2001, computers and gadgets were presented as the necessary final ingredient to an individual’s creative genius; but as Apple shifted heavily into selling handheld devices meant for consuming media, they also began leaning on the idea that to own their products was to be a part of a community: iPhone ads barely mention technology at all, opting instead to show poignant, intimate moments with the device capturing or mediating the experience. As Starbucks showed in the ’90s, the feeling of inclusion can justify higher markups: Apple calls their flagship stores “town squares” that act as venues for events, not just shelves for products. Their App Store bundles everything from TikTok to the lesbian dating app Her into a list titled “Find your Community.” In a recent press release about new tools to prevent bullying on the platform, Instagram sounds like a caring middle-school principal: “We’ve heard from young people in our community that they’re reluctant to block, unfollow, or report their bully because it could escalate the situation, especially if they interact with their bully in real life.” Amazon Ring’s attendant Neighbors app, which allows users to receive and share police alerts as well as reports of suspected criminal activity — and whose high susceptibility to racist profiling has been discussed — urges that “together we can create stronger communities.”

To wield the community metaphor requires three steps: invoke discomfort or fear among the target population that they are not members of the community; show them the benefits and terms of belonging; and finally, offer them a seat while outlining the rules that let you stay. These three short steps draw the individual’s attention to the crushing freedom of modernity — you can be anything, which also means you can fail at creating a self — and then offer a reasonable set of instructions to zeroing in on an identity, a role to play. Facebook portrays itself as an antidote to FOMO: the cool hangout where all your friends are. The company makes itself necessary not just by highlighting what you gain access to in using it, but by what you miss out on if you do not: event invites, group chats, meme references, and so on. Its “community standards” sound like something a group of like-minded, invested people decided on together, not a document written by lawyers. Believing that something as big as a global brand or a nation is a community creates a mental bridge to believing — or selling the idea — that community is a service you can sign up for.

Calling planet-spanning digital networks like Facebook or Reddit “communities” isn’t any more or less realistic than saying the bureaucracies and customs that make up Canada or North Korea contain a common people. Benedict Anderson’s work on imagined communities outlines how technologies like the printing press collided with early capitalist formations and the industrial revolution to smooth out regional differences. These technologies helped standardized cultural mores, from languages to timekeeping, in ways that brought larger and larger swaths of people together as a single political entity, which eventually morphs into a nation comprised of a dominant lingua franca, a set of laws, a military and police force, and concrete borders. As such, the imagined nation creates an ethos that manufactures belonging where none previously existed. The affective, values-based relationships described in patriotic speeches and product announcements make societal, transactional relationships feel more meaningful than they really are.

The amorphous “community” can be conceptualized as somehow outside of society

Hierarchical political entities, such as national parties and advocacy groups, work similarly to corporations in claiming to be organized, distilled, and media-ready institutional synecdoches of communities. They also project this construct onto other groups. In the new millennium, the strident optimism and arrogance of 20th-century American and European aid agencies gave way to a more collaborative — critics would say insidious — form of international development. In a chapter of the 2001 anthology Participation: The New Tyranny, international development specialist Uma Kothari critiques the “participatory development” approach to international aid, in which aid workers from a rich country show up to a remote portion of a poor one — maybe after an acute disaster, maybe for more general restructuring — and ask “the community” what they need. In these meetings with locals, “the complexities and ‘messiness’ of most people’s everyday lives is filtered out,” and outsiders distill an idealized version of how the community functions. Outsiders treat local communities as monoliths, without taking into account the power dynamics and competing interests within them.

The most common reasons these projects fail, it seems, are also the most trivial results of local social hierarchies: theft, corruption of officials who seize or confiscate equipment, or people who think they know better wiping computers clean and removing valuable software. Just because a country has been ravaged by international capitalist accumulation does not mean that is the only sociopolitical imbalance at play. Paradoxically, all communities are unique in the same way: they are sites of overlapping, longstanding tensions and alliances that are irreducible to a single name or over-arching institution.

This irreducibility means that communitarian frameworks are bound to obscure more than they illuminate. At best, community talk lets powerful people sidestep difficult topics: The Green New Deal resolution effectively avoids referencing racism and patriarchy at all and instead lists off a parade of abstract communities: “indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth (referred to in this preamble as ‘frontline and vulnerable communities’).” In this way it elides naming the power structures causing the problems real people face.

In a prophetic 1996 Village Voice article, Adolph Reed Jr. decried the use of constant references to the “black community” in politics, in part because references to singular, seemingly cohesive communities imply the existence of uncontested leadership positions. The image of the black community, he wrote, creates the opportunity for “white elites [to] recognize and negotiate with nominal, ultimately unaccountable race ‘leaders.’” In this way the rich and powerful can choose their loyal opposition and divide marginalized populations. A more recent example is the Human Rights Campaign, which steered attention and resources to the interests of mainly affluent white gay men and the right to marry, at the expense and against the protests of more marginalized factions of the LGBTQ movement. Twitter’s “Trust and Safety Council” is made up of members from “community groups” that are, themselves, highly contestable representatives for their constituents. The Anti-Defamation League, for example, frequently categorizes criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, a position that is far out of step from most young American Jews.

Social media companies claim to be community leaders even though their interests are often diametrically opposed to those of their users

To say that Facebook or America — or, in a very different sense, black or LGBTQ populations — are communities is not merely to describe them as “authentic,” but also to argue that they lack the messiness of power and politics at the interpersonal or societal level. Reed, again, notes that “because whites by and large don’t see black Americans as a complex population of differentiated individuals, the organic community imagery seems reasonable and natural to them.” Behind every invocation of “community” lies a tacit approval of power structures within the group, whether that’s conservative churches, domineering parents, or reactionary neighbors.

Referring to a community’s “goals,” “culture,” or any other characteristic means not having to deal with its internal strife, its toxicity, its oppressive or coercive dynamics among individuals. In turn, the amorphous community can be conceptualized as somehow outside of society, or naturally in opposition to it, or being purely beneficial to it, depending on the intentions of the entity declaring the existence of said community. Community implies a condition beyond politics where a collectivity automatically shares values and agrees on how to realize them. What community actually entails is precisely the process and capability of working these disagreements out.

Social media companies attempt to wrap a veil of community over a pre-existing power hierarchy. This provides rhetorical cover for mealy-mouthed responses to real crises — Hey, I know there are lots of Nazis on Facebook, but we are a community so we have to work on this together! — and it also gives corporate leaders some semblance of legitimacy in speaking for the users of their platform. They can claim to be the leader of a community, even though their interests are often diametrically opposed to those of their users.

The most paradoxical version of this ersatz community talk is on Reddit, where users almost universally refer to the different parts of the site as “subreddits,” while the company itself insists on calling them “communities.” The parts of the site that act the least like communities are the ones most promoted by the site to potential new users and advertisers, while those that do have a very clear unified vision of the world and have strict rules for participation are often “quarantined,” meaning they require email-verified accounts to participate, they are gated behind a disclaimer about objectionable content, and they are not included on Reddit’s front page. Perhaps most importantly with regards to Reddit’s motivations for quarantining, they do not feature advertised content. Few companies want their bras or mobile games advertised alongside controversial material. 

To be sure, just because subreddits, flags, and phones are contrived and invented social objects does not preclude communitarian meaning from accreting around them like barnacles on a boat. The affective bond that makes community so appealing, even necessary to human flourishing, is transferred to social media platforms with ease — in part because your friends, family, and neighbors can be found there, but also because likes, comments, retweets, and upvotes are also mechanisms that reinforce this sense of belonging. The feelings of inclusion when you get an inside joke endemic to only your 1,000-person subreddit, or feel understood in a secret Facebook group comprise the moments of community that platforms leverage to shore up their brands, making them places where meaningful connections happen, places we rely on to fulfill the need for community.

Reddit proves that companies don’t want actual communities, which set conditions for participation and believe intensely in a set of rules or facts that may be anathema to everyone else. Social media relies on fast onboarding, easy-to-understand rules, and “welcoming” content to scale at the pace venture capital demands. Perhaps more importantly, it shows that communities are not the unalloyed goods we think they are. Communities can be oppressive and offensive to outsiders and do not scale very easily. We can experience intense joy when we find ones we fit into, but that’s just not something that can be reliably delivered to everyone via algorithmic suggestions.

As Reed wrote, “The less attention is paid to cultivating and protecting the sphere of negotiation, the more the balance shifts to coercion. The rhetoric of community is impatient with the former, and its myth of authenticity rationalizes the latter.” Perhaps what we need now is not more community, but a more just society. Social media is community made easy, which isn’t community at all.