Viewing social networks as collectives rather than communities may help us make sense of their place in schools. How can a person have 1,000 friends? Why do students spend so much time on Facebook? What is the nature of membership in a social network?
Douglas Thomas explores how social network websites act primarily as collectives, not communities. In a collective, the institution is organized to
provide individual agency to its members.
In a community, the general motive for participation is belonging, principally, belonging to an institution greater than oneself or even the sum of its members. In a collective, the investment is in participating … without the immediate sense of reciprocity that community entails.
Facebook, Google, Ebay, Amazon are all large institutional structures that have the singular and sole purpose of affording an individual agency.
Sometimes, a collective contains several communities within it. This makes it easy to conflate the two. However, the collective does not depend on the communities within it for its continued existence.
A student may interact with a subset of her social network contacts as a community, exchanging direct messages and commenting on friends’ posts. The entirety of a student’s social network may act as a collective, providing the student with critical information that supports her sense of personal agency, whether or not she posts at all.
If alumni and parents join a school’s Facebook page for reasons of personal agency, not reciprocal interaction, then the purpose of posting to the Facebook page changes considerably. A school would want to consider what content it could provide that would support individual agency.
Viewing social networks as collectives instead of communities has the potential to advance our understanding of their useful purpose in schools.
Photo credit: “Face in a crowd” by vividbreeze