washingtonpost.com  > Technology > Special Reports > Internet

Instant Community: No Assembly Required

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2004; Page C01

These are rough days for the "rat-terrier community," the "heavy-metal community," the "porn community" and the "arms community," among other communities in the world's expanding community of communities.

But these are bright days for "community" in general, the term if not the concept.

Welcome to the club: Members of "the NASCAR community" gather trackside to celebrate another meeting of beer and bumper tag. (Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)

There is a community for everyone -- canker sore sufferers, panty lovers, Duran Duran fans, goat owners -- to a point they are proliferating into a community of self-parody.

While "community" has been a hackneyed term for decades -- terms such as "the black community," "the gay community" the "international disaster relief community," and the "investor community" have long been over-applied to diverse and often fractured realms -- the Internet has provided a spaceless "place" for communities to convene. Indeed, there you will find not only the ferret lover community but also the zit lover community. (Don't believe? Google.)

The journalism community loves communities, or at least calling things communities, no matter how tenuous or irrelevant these designations might be.

"Speaking as a member of the journalism criticism community," says media critic Bob Garfield, "I find that calling something a 'community' is yet another journalistic crutch that leans heavily on a foundation that doesn't really exist."

Garfield, who is a host of National Public Radio's "On the Media" and a columnist for Advertising Age, also identifies himself as a member of the "why-do-we-even-answer-phone-calls-from-annoying-reporters community."

Sociologists have been bemoaning the loss of community in America for decades -- people becoming more isolated, partaking of more solitary pursuits at the expense of "building community." That whole "Bowling Alone" thing.

But by naming something a "community," we impose a faux-descriptive category on what is generally a random phenomenon. For instance, this month's slaying of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, the Missouri woman who was eight months pregnant and whose fetus was cut from her body, would outrage anyone with a shred of humanity (if not community). But because the murder was allegedly perpetrated by a woman who learned about her online "from the rat-terrier community" (according to CNN), the incident struck that community particularly hard.

And the onstage slaying of Pantera founder "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott at an Ohio nightclub this month devastated "the heavy-metal community," according to members of the aggrieved community -- or, more likely, reporters who wrote about them.

But the promiscuity of community is more than purely a media phenomenon. Groups of people often strain to identify themselves as a community. This is particularly true when one of their own dies (say, a member of "the NASCAR community" after a crash), or is inconvenienced (a member of "the air travel community" during the holiday weekend) or has reason to celebrate (the "Star Wars community" when a new movie is released).

We also hear a lot from the ham radio community, the Mac users community, Irritable Bowel Syndrome community, the transgender community, the swingers community, the peanut allergy community, the vegan community and the stoner community. Even the anarchist community -- which would seem to be a contradiction -- has chapters across the country and is ubiquitous on the Web.

"Community evokes a sense of warm-fuzziness on a group of people who have only the most superficial bonds," says Amitai Etzioni, a George Washington University sociologist who has written extensively about the "community of communities" around the world.

Etzioni says the term "community" has not been overused as much as abused. He says an authentic community must include both genuine bonds of affection and shared moral values.

"That should be the test of a community," says Etzioni, "not whether someone simply calls them a community."

We celebrate this man as a pillar of the community-restraint community.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company