Debates in Digital Culture 2019/Online Communities


A graph showing the number of internet users by country. Online communities connect people globally.

There is often a tendency to define a dichotomy between life online and offline; however, in societies with constant, easy access to technology, this distinction has blurred nearly to nonexistence [1]. Social relationships can begin or be maintained virtually through various types of online communities, but there is some debate over whether these communities are beneficial or detrimental for their users, most of whom are young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 [2].

Franchise CommunitiesEdit

Franchise communities are those which allow fan made content - particularly fan art, game modding and fanfiction - to be sold or available to other members of the community. Largely these works are hosted on websites such as Etsy, Redbubble, Steam, Archive of Our Own, and fanfiction, which allow for simple ways to share fan made content. Franchise communities allow creators to give back to their respective fandoms through content such as fan art and fan fiction. In many ways, these communities unite entire fanbases in ways previously unforeseen. However, there are some issues with franchise communities, particularly in regards to those who earn money through the creation of fan made content. As a result of this, there are ongoing debates about the legality of fan made content and its place in the wider fandom community.

Fan Made Content and the LawEdit

Fan made content will always be a point of contention with the original licence holders of the content - particularly those who are able to make a profit from their fan made creations. Largely those who are to monetise their content are often fan artists which have multiple platforms to distribute their content without the consent of the original license holders. Whilst it is not illegal to create fan made content and upload it online for other members of the community - monetising that content is, as fan creators do not own the rights to original source. Despite this, websites such as Etsy and Redbubble do not strictly enforce a no copyright content rule despite it being in both their terms of use [3] [4] that they follow an Intellectual Property Policy to ensure that copyrighted content is not hosted on their site. Even with those policies in place, Etsy is known as one of the largest hosts of fan made content.

Anne Rice is one of many authors who disapproves of fan fictions

However, it is not just the monetisation of fan made content that comes up against the law - fan fiction is often placed under pressure to be removed by the original authors due to copyright issues. Anne Rice, author of The Vampire Chronicles, disallows all works of fan fiction based on her creations [5] - requesting that (one of the largest hosts of fan writing) remove all stories featuring her characters. FanFiction now states in their community guidelines [6] a list of authors or publishers who have disallowed fan made works to be posted based on their site. Content creators often want to produce original content to bring in an audience, but do not want those works to be affected by fan made content, therefore protected by legal status and the integrity of the original work.[7] However, the moment works are placed into wide circulation, there are fan creators who will produce content for the gratification of the community, monetised or not.

Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) heads several non-profit fan supportive websites

There are websites however, that are attempting to ease the legal strain of fan made content. Archive of Our Own (AO3) is a non-profit fan works website, run by the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), relying on donations visitors to the site to allow it to continue running. The non-profit status of the website allows it to host content without the possibility of legal action as no money is made by those posting works. Due to this, AO3 has a strict non-advertising policy for its users, direct links to funding websites such as Ko-fi or Patreon are not allowed as this violates non-profit rules placing AO3 culpable of monetising content.[8]

Despite the legal implications of monetising fan made content, many creators will continue to do so. Whilst fans will mostly rely on gift culture (receiving content for free from members of the community) there are many who will continue to distribute fan made content through websites like Etsy. Content creators will always skirt the lines of the law, particularly in regard to the monetisation of content, but as of yet there has been no legal ruling to say that fan made content harms the original source or that it should be considered illegal.[9]

Interest CommunitiesEdit

Interest communities are those online websites that encourage members to talk about their own personal interests, such as a specific music artist, film or book, to name a few. In this sense, these websites are different to those used for personal use (personal communities), as the individual is not the focus point. Rather, users connect over their shared interests, leading to the creation of a fandom which is often a fairly exclusive group.

Social Media: Tumblr, Twitter and RedditEdit

The Sherlock fandom community stick together during the show's hiatuses

Tumblr is a microblogging platform which has been ‘reported to be the most popular social site among [the] young generation, as half of Tumblr’s visitors are under 25 years old.[10] For many individuals, Tumblr has become a safe space to come together as a community and share thoughts and interests on different areas.

Megan DeSouza explained in an article about the affects on individuals within Tumblr communities ‘Entire online "communities" of like-minded individuals can be brought together without ever knowing each other's real-world identities, simply through interaction on such networks’[11]. DeSouza used the BBC Drama ‘Sherlock’ as an inspiration for her looking into Tumblr to see how the fans interacted, maintaining their community between the show's hiatus. She found that a lot of the communities came together to speculate what was going to happen within the next coming episodes and seasons, as well as sharing their favourite photos and ‘gifs’ of the show.

Twitter has enabled fans to create groups which over time become a close knit group of people, creating a community. These groups range from supporting music artists to films or TV series. Since it was introduced in 2006 Twitter has established its reputation as the main platform for communication between celebrities and their audiences [12]. The website facilitates discussion between celebrities and the user, with the first big fandoms on Twitter arguably being the One Direction and Justin Bieber fandoms.

One Direction at the Logies Awards 2012

The One Direction fandom in particular proved to be dominant across the platform, with just over 30 million followers. In 2015, fans dominated the trending feature on the website, as they paid tribute to the band's five-year anniversary and successfully created trends dedicated to each of the members over a week long period [13]. However, these fandoms often do not interact well with others on the platform, such as between the One Direction and Justin Bieber fandoms. In 2016, tensions were heightened between the two, when Bieber's fandom beat One Direction's to the award of Best Fandom in the iHeartRadio Awards.

Despite the negatives that can arise from fandom culture, Twitter is a place that allows different groups of people to bond over their common interest. Creating a feeling of community, the fandom can often become a close-knit group of people who feel closer to their favourite celebrity and can discuss with like-minded people their opinions and views.

Reddit, as well as many other forum based online communities, has been the subject of a variety of research over the years, not only into the site itself and how it functions, but also into the users. One study in particular looked into the way that users function in Subreddits, while also asking the question of how likely it is for one user to participate in multiple Subreddits. This research found that although the Reddit users can generally be incredibly active in their own communities, and that many do take on a specific role, a large majority of Reddit users do not actively participate in more than one community. [14]

Smart MobsEdit

File:Social Media Censorship.jpg
Thinking outside of the group mentality can make you a target.

Smart Mobs is a term used to describe a group of people who use digital technology and media to co-operate and communicate. The concept was defined by Howard Rheingold[15]. A smart mob can be seen as the embodiment of collective intelligence and once communicating they can gather physically or online.

An example of smart mobs using digital technology to then connect in the real world would be planning protests or riots via texting and then meeting up to actually take part (example: 2005 French riots). This page will focus on the actions of smart mobs on the digital space.

Online, smart mobs often gather on social media where it can be easy for groups of like-minded people to attack and berate someone else something they have said or done. The most common place for this type of social mob mentality is twitter where it is easy to hide your identity[16]. A new term gaining popularity is cancel culture where a mob declares someone to be "cancelled" due to something they have done that has been seen as problematic or unacceptable. Critics of this often discuss how people are usually being vilified for things they have done in the past. A recent example would be Kevin Hart's 2011 homophobic tweets being brought up in 2019 after repeated previous apologies. This resulted in him being forced to back out of hosting the 2019 Oscars.[17].

Often these mobs refuse to accept that people's opinions can change over time, as well as what is culturally acceptable changing too. The concept of "social justice" and "social justice warriors" did not exist in the mainstream before around 2013 [18] Those in the mob act morally superior and hold people to unobtainable standards by digging into people's past when they likely have said similar things themselves.

Fandom HierarchiesEdit

Fan communities have always had a place online ever since the domestication of the internet in the late 90’s, it furthered their existing access [19]. In fandoms, it only seems natural that there would be negative aspects; if a big enough group gets together not everyone is going to be nice.

Current Doctor Who Logo

Doctor Who, after it’s reboot in 2005, touched the lives of more than one generation of fans. From the arguments of Andrea MacDonald, 5 levels of hierarchy are established: Knowledge, fandom level, access, leaders and venue [20] each amounting to an individual’s importance in the fandom. Bourdieu’s theory of society assumes that knowledge is a metaphor for capital; a cultural capital [21]. In relation to Doctor Who, a generational hierarchy formed, with older fans believing they had more capital and newer fans believing they had better access [19] the way fandoms worked in 2005, was different and more technologically charged. While the formation of a hierarchy in a fandom seems natural it is discouraging, in her 1998 research MacDonald believed that hierarchies were there to help new fans [20] but some 2 decades later it would seem that hierarchies are used more to belittle fans; for not knowing enough or not buying enough, making fandoms a much less harmonious place to be.

Personal CommunitiesEdit

Various Social Media Logos

Personal communities, such as Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram, allow users to create a profile containing personal information and facilitate communication with other users through direct (direct messaging), passive/voyeuristic (browsing without commenting) or broadcast means (e.g. stories, live broadcasting), allowing for widespread sharing and consumption of user-created content. Users are motivated by the opportunity for social interaction, archiving and self-expression.[22] Users have control over their privacy settings to an extent, picking and choosing how much information to disclose, and whether or not they would like their profiles to be freely viewable without permission. The type of content and connections that are built and shared in these communities are entirely down to the user based on who they choose to follow and to whom they allow access to their own pages.

With constant access to our phones, communication occurs in an instant.

Young people especially spend a large amount of their everyday lives online, with constant access to endless information [23]. This temporal convenience allows users to keep track of updates in their friends’ and family’s as though they were physically there at the time. These types of interactions are beneficial in building and maintaining various types of social capital in different ways. Social capital "broadly refers to the resources accumulated through the relationships among people" [24], with bridging social capital being weaker or loose connections with others which provide information but not necessarily emotional support. Ellison et al's Facebook study indicated that bridging social capital is facilitated through the platform's lowering of barriers of participation, meaning shyer students may feel less inhibited to become involved and build such social capital. [24]. With bonded social capital, which is characterized by close and deep emotional connections (e.g. close friends and family), Facebook can be useful in maintaining pre-existing close relationships (by allowing users to send birthday wishes, for example).[24]. Such platforms also allow for the maintenance of social capital where a person is physically disconnected from a previous community, such as a student leaving their home town for university. Studies have shown personal communities and the connections built and maintained through them also have health and physical benefits, whether it is information and support when looking for a job after unemployment [25], or psychological well-being related to stress-relief.[26] Public health as a whole has scope for improvement through personal online communities too, whether it is through public health notices posted on these platforms to raise awareness, patients speaking to other patients online or even patients speaking to their healthcare professionals through platforms like Facebook and Twitter.[27] There are also benefits outside of a user’s personal life, as they can share and spread information and articles in an instant, expanding others’ knowledge of current events, scientific discoveries, and more. While there are concerns related to bias or unreliability, with a little bit of effort, one can easily keep track of important events in the world.

Online Identity and DeindividuationEdit

While social networks offer several beneficial aspects, they can also be a place for manipulation and deception. The freedom offered by the Internet, and more specifically by social media platforms, allows people to craft an image of themselves that does not necessarily correspond to reality. While concealing one’s identity is normalised and at times encouraged in the context of interest communities[28], the ability to manipulate how one presents themselves in online communities can lead to crimes such as identity theft and fraud.

The most notorious example of identity theft is catfishing, an example of identity replacement-the act of substituting another identity for one’s own[29]-which occurs when an individual uses someone else’s pictures and fabricates personal details, usually with the intention to establish a relationship with an unsuspecting victim. This practice can reveal especially dangerous if the relationship progresses to a meeting in real life, which could lead to fraud or even assault. Another possible downside of online anonymity is deindividuation. This phenomenon occurs when individuals lose their sense of personal identity after disguising their own identity online or after becoming members of a group. According to this theory, people subject to deindividuation tend to behave differently than they would without the anonymous status offered by online communities[29]. This leads to a broader discourse regarding people’s social engagement, and whether people’s online activity influences the way they behave in society. Jaron Lanier argues that as most aspects of our lives have now become digitalised, human interactions are meant to follow[30]: the way social media connects us to one another is also one of the main aspects that make them so addictive, leading users to feel the need to ‘fit in’ with the rest of the community, possibly losing their individuality.

With deindividuation also comes the threat of a loss of creativity. Lanier argues that the internet has undergone a “missionary reductionism” with the rise of Web 2.0, whereby personhood is reduced, and individuals become fragments of their true selves in online communities (2011, p.48)[30]. He states that “using computers to reduce individual expression is a primitive, retrograde activity, no matter how sophisticated your tools are (2011, p.48)[30]. Examples of this include websites like Facebook which reduce personalities into simplified online fragments or Wikipedia’s which seek to erase viewpoint entirely to give an illusion of superhuman quality. When the online self is deindividuated and dehumanised all that remains is mush as quantity does not necessarily equate quality.

Trolling and Aggression in Online CommunitiesEdit

The Internet Troll

Online anonymity has earned the World Wide Web the nickname the 'Wild West Web': a lawless digital realm where pseudonyms allow users to post their most primal thoughts with little to no repercussions in the offline world. The decentralised organisation of the internet coupled with online anonymity creates an environment without the normative limitations needed to keep aggression in check (Malamuth, Linz & Yao, 2005)[31] Anonymity in online communities has two key effects on aggressive behaviour: it protects 'trolls', or "an anonymous person who is abusive in an online environment", (Lanier, 2011, p.60)[30] from being held accountable and depersonalises victims.

In serious cases, victims of online trolling and cyberbullying have committed suicide. In 2012, a 15-year-old girl from Canada named Amanda Todd, took her own life after being harassed online by an internet 'troll' located in the Netherlands. In addition to personal victims, the latest incidences of online trolling have had political implications. The Internet Research Agency in Russia is responsible for hiring a team of internet 'trolls' to spread pro-Russian propaganda in countries like the United States.

Online communities are often praised for their ability to provide social support (such as fan communities), but the ever present dark side to this is that it can have the same effect with aggressive communities. The Internet can give the impression to individual users that many others share the same ideas or interests as they do, no matter how deviant the interests are. This has been the case with extremist groups who use the uninhibited realm of the Internet as "a fertile ground for growth and expression"(Malamuth, Linz & Yao, 2005, p.176).[31] In her report on the Alternative Influence Network, Lewis (2018)[32] identifies the dangers of right-wing extremist communities on the video sharing platform Youtube, emphasising how influencers on the site are able to lend credibility to one another, despite openly extreme, white nationalist ideologies.


Depending on someone's perspective, communities formed online can have both a positive and negative impact on both society and individuals. On a positive level, they can provide emotional support and entertainment , as well as facilitate business activities. [33]. An example of these business activities is user-generated fan content that is shown online and then can be bought by other users if they like the artwork. People can find others with similar interests and bond over celebrities, tv shows and music. However, there can be negative consequences to online communities. Users can suffer from de-individualisation or depression stemming from online activities. Not all communities are nice places, with trolling or mob mentalities causing people to be hurt showing that the digital space can have real life consequences.


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