Part I: This covers a majority of the Earth’s human population
The understanding of community in its more traditional senses has largely been predicated on a rarely posited assumption. It is explicitly stated in any number of texts on the subject that community is constituted firstly by a membership – a congregation of individuals or singularities whose plural operation and association make up the body of the community – and secondly by a space – some forum within which this congregation may assemble and operate. Yet the role played by time in the composition of community goes almost universally unstated. Underlying our sense of what community means, or what it means to exist within a community, however, there is a tacit presupposition that there must exist a degree of coincidence or coexistence between the membership of the community. Of course this is not to suggest a blanket simultaneity between all members, rather that community is constituted by a network of smaller meetings in time, in which two or more members encounter one another according to a shared temporality. Face to face contact (which up until very recently represented the bread and butter of what we understand to be community) is predicated on such a mutual experience of time.
Just as membership and spatiality’s roles within the constitution of community have been extensively theorized, so too have they been the subject of intense scrutiny in renegotiations of community over recent years. Jean-Luc Nancy (Nancy 1991), Maurice Blanchot (Blanchot 1988), Giorgio Agamben (Agamben 1993) and Roberto Esposito (Esposito 2009), among others, all proposed models of community during the 1980s and 1990s, which Gerard Delanty collectively termed ‘Postmodern Community’ (Delanty 2010: 103); models which do not presuppose a membership or a common space, and indeed in some cases position these two factors as absolutely antithetical to community. The question of time, however, is again rarely mentioned.
Not that theorists of ‘Postmodern Community’ could have anticipated it, but the internet (more specifically the socially oriented era of Web 2.0) has come to exist as perhaps the best practical counterpart to their philosophical assertions. While community is one of the most widely proliferated terminologies at play online, its usages are complex, and the relationships between membership, space and community embodied in online situations seem precisely to mirror those discussed in theory. Wikimedia’s page on the Wikipedia community is a quasi-philosophical explanation of the usage of the term within the context of Wikipedia. It states that
The Wikipedia community includes all casual and/or anonymous editors, ideological supporters, current readers and even potential readers of all the language versions of Wikipedia-the-encyclopedia. This covers a majority of the Earth’s human population… [emphasis in the original]
The idea of a clear or definable membership is here eschewed in favour of a more abstract ‘potential’ membership, while any traditional spatial constitution of community would rely on us identifying either ‘Wikipedia-the-encyclopedia’ or ‘the Earth’ as the forum of the community, a problematic classification at best. It is also in analyses of online community that the blind spot of time in the theory of ‘Postmodern Community’ may be elucidated. In this text I wish to briefly touch upon the issue in an attempt to clarify whether the shared temporalities implicit in traditional modes of community pertain in online contexts.
Part II: Everything has its own time
Since Francis Fukuyama published his controversial essay ‘The End of History?’ (Fukuyama 1989), there has been a surge of philosophical discussions regarding temporality. While this is not the right context to delve into this discourse too deeply, three conclusions – each vital to the question of the relationships between community and time – clearly emerge. The first is that ‘everything has its own time, the time of duration, of cyclicality, of growth or ageing, of birth and death…’ as Robert Hassan articulates. The second is that we construct, as a means of ordering, controlling and synchronising these disparate and isolated temporalities, a standardised mode of time. ‘…But we move through these and create connections between them with hardly a thought… Time is social,’ he continues (Hassan 2007: 38).
The third conclusion is that our contemporary existence is defined by the schism that has emerged between these two temporalities (the isolated and the social), and by the revelation that the two are precisely not one and the same thing. Carmen Leccardi has traced the lineage of this development through the recent stages of ‘acceleration society’ (Gleick 2000). She observes that the ‘while the process of acceleration spreads… the feeling of a lack of time increases, meaning that the time saved through technology has been swallowed up by the process of social acceleration’ (Leccardi 2007: 27). Although technologies permit us to act more promptly, more efficiently, the speeding up of our ‘rhythms of life’ nullifies the productive effects of this acceleration. This in turn leads to a perpetual contraction of the present, a diminishing of the time available for current action.
It is from this process, according to Leccardi, that the schism between isolated and social temporalities emerges. ‘The contraction/reduction of the present makes the present as temporal aggregate disappear and reduces its existence to a cloud of moving (but not ordered) particles’ (Leccardi 2007: 30). Without any mutual and shared sense of ‘now’ temporality becomes fractured, each individual experiencing time not as a seamless conjunction of the isolated and the social, but as an individual movement disconnected from all other movements. As Jacques Derrida has stated ‘our time is perhaps the time in which it is no longer so easy for us to say “our time”’ (Derrida et al. 2001: 7)
Part III: Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!
In order both to ground this rather abstract discussion of the experience of time in some reality, and to demonstrate the significance bestowed upon time and it’s deconstructive ramifications for community in the present-day, below I outline a (rather hackneyed) example that will likely be widely familiar.
Prior to the widespread availability of the internet, news was primarily received through either television or radio news reports, or through the printed press. While newspapers represent a more complicated example, comparing the reception of news through television with its reception through online sources demonstrates a profound alteration in the social experience of time. Although news reports occurred (and continue to occur) sporadically throughout the day, real social significance in the UK during my own youth was bestowed upon the BBC’s 6pm and 9pm (later 10pm) news broadcasts. Therefore, disregarding the exceptions presented by events deemed worth of being disseminated via newsflash (9/11, for example), a large proportion of the population received the news at these standardized and set times. Of course, this means that news was received at a significant delay (by our current standards). An event which took place at 8am would not be able to be reported in the morning newspapers and would not appear on a widely watched news bulletin until 6pm, thus engendering a 10 hour latency in reception.
The advent of 24 hour rolling news channels such as BBC News 24, launched in 1997, and online news services such as http://www.bbc.co.uk/news, also launched in 1997, instigated an alteration in the social reception of news which has continued to develop through the growth of social networks and the smartphone, each new innovation decreasing the latency period between an event occurring and it being received. Now, we have arrived at a situation where news is far more swiftly spread through social media (particularly Twitter) than through dedicated news sites. The same event taking place at 8am may now be relayed within seconds via Twitter, decreasing the latency period hypothetically to the amount of time it takes to input 140 characters. Even the breaking news push notifications provided by CNN’s iPhone app are unable to keep pace with this.
However, it is this contraction of actual latency time, which counter-intuitively accentuates the feeling of latency experienced at a subjective level. Watching the 6 o’clock news seemed to be a social experience. The sense is that everyone experienced the news in a shared social time (‘the present as temporal aggregate’). Despite the fact that you received news from the past, it felt very present. With the case of Twitter, by the time you have refreshed the page, a major story may already be trending, it may have engulfed your feed, and each individual tweet may have received hundreds of retweets, favourites and replies. All this in a matter of seconds or minutes. If you want to tweet a pithy remark or a pertinent joke, someone has probably beaten you to it. Thus, despite the contraction of actually elapsed time, there is an unavoidable sense that you are always too late. You are exposed to endless evidences that other people have found out about this before you have, evidences of time experienced as a collection of disparate and isolated trajectories.
Part IV: A cloud of moving (but not ordered) particles
In the same way that membership and shared space are no longer deemed prerequisites of community (at least in online circumstances), it would also seem that the temporal fractionalization inherent to online sociality does not negatively impact on the possibility to identify and be accepted as a ‘community’. We are increasingly aware, thanks to the latency of online interactions, that we all occupy our own temporalities and that while the internet may intermediate between these temporalities, we exist experientially as isolated individuals. And yet the term ‘community’ has proliferated online more than in any other environment in recent years. Returning to the example of the Wikipedia community may help in demonstrating the perpetuation of ‘community’ in spite of this temporal fractionalization:
Individual and community here work in tandem. Without individuals, there would of course be no community — and no material for the encyclopedia — but without the community the individual’s contributions would be meaningless and without context.
The construction of a single Wikipedia page may be stated to be both the work of the Wikipedia community and of the individuals who make up that community. Each individual contributes a series of additions or amendments to the page as an isolated singularity, and therefore according to his own temporality. Yet the page is only constituted by the amalgamation of all of these is4olated individual efforts. This is indeed manifested in the revision history pages which reside behind each Wikipedia page. At the time of writing the three most recent contributors to Wikipedia’s page on ‘Community’ (excluding bots) were Grantbow, Airplaneman and M0rphzone. Each of these users’ interactions with Wikimedia are logged on their user contributions pages.
In isolation, each of these pages act as an archive or trace of the user’s own individual temporal experience. It is only however in sum of these timelines that the genesis of the page emerges, displayed in the form of the revision history page.
Although this page would appear to constitute – returning to Leccardi’s language – a ‘temporal aggregate’ it is not representative of how time is experienced by each member of the community at the moment of their interaction. It is a post-hoc order, the superimposition of a rationalised, constructed temporality onto the ‘cloud of moving (but not ordered) particles,’ which contributed to the page. Nor does it log the ‘ideological supporters, current readers and even potential readers’ of the page. How could it? In the case of Wikipedia, far from being endangered by the lack of any shared experiential time, community is founded upon the isolation of temporalities. The ecosystem upon which the community is based relies upon the actions of temporally (and spatially) atomised individuals and while not all online communities function in the same fashion as the Wikipedia community, simultaneity and synchronicity are equally unnecessary in most cases to a community’s constitution. The internet has given rise not simply to forms of dismembered, or deterritorialised community, but to atemporal community.
Agamben, Giorgio (1993), The Coming Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
Blanchot, M. (1988), The Unavowable Community (Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill Press).
Delanty, Gerard (2010), Community (London: Routledge).
Derrida, Jaques, et al. (2001), A Taste for the Secret (Cambridge: Polity).
Esposito, Roberto (2009), Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Univ Press).
Fukuyama, Francis (1989), ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest, 16 (4).
Gleick, James (2000), Faster (New York: Pantheon).
Hassan, Robert (2007), ‘Network Time’, in Robert Hassan and Ronald E. Purser (eds.), 24/7 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), 37-61.
Leccardi, Carmen (2007), ‘New Temporal Perspectives in the “High-Speed Society”‘, in Robert Hassan and Ronald E. Purser (eds.), 24/7 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), 25-36.
Nancy, Jean-Luc (1991), The Inoperative Community (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press).