The creation of community: 1807 online
Dr. Emma Waterton (Keele University)
The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 is constructed, remembered and memorialised by a range of people, often in different - and competing - ways. For the most part, these perspectives have tended to derive from media and institutional representations of the abolition in response to its bicentenary. In addition, however, there is a muted category of community regarding the abolition of slavery, which tends to debate and argue their views in the digital world. In this contribution, Dr. Emma Waterton examines these issues and the oppositional meanings, messages and identities often embodied by these virtual communities, drawing on the website Ligali as an example.
Although the concept of 'community' has been prevalent for some time, it has tended to be associated with those senses of belonging and affective experiences derived from place-based and face-to-face encounters. Recently, however, this notion of a geographically defined 'community' has been challenged by the advent of computer-mediated communication (CMC), which has subsequently given rise to a phenomenon commonly labelled virtual communities (Rheingold 1993; Abdelnour-Nocera 1998; Bell 2001; Dicks 2003; Blanchard and Markus 2004; Laiken et al. 2005; Benwell and Stokoe 2006). Indeed, as Bella Dicks (2003: 189) notes, 'much of the communication that takes place in online meeting places is orientated to the creation of community rather than the discovery of difference.' Likewise, notions of identity, which have conventionally revolved around verbal constructions and performances that take place during face-to-face encounters, are also arguably constructed and sustained in a range of embodied and disembodied experiences, including 'on the screen' (Turkle 1995; Benwell and Stokoe 2006; Norris 2007). The powerful effects of computer-mediated communication is witnessed by the impressive array of ways in which people can engage in online interpersonal interaction and communication, ranging from: (a) email, chat-rooms, blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook and My Space; (b) forms of instant messaging, such as MSN and Instant Messenger; (c) posting, bulletin boards, discussion lists and forums; and (d) virtual worlds, spaces and games.
The idea of a 'virtual community' was initially coined by Howard Rheingold (1993: 5), who proposed the following definition;
'Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.'
Like much of the literature dealing with ideas of 'community', the new language developed by Rheingold to talk about virtual 'settlements', 'commons', 'publics' and 'communities' has a tendency to be tinged with a strong sense of nostalgia, taking up a distinctly romanticised view of community. From this perspective, the virtual world is characterised as a democratising advance, capable of opening up new social and cultural spaces for experiencing and engaging with life (Kollock and Smith 1996: 109l; Wellman et al. 1996: 219; Abdelnour-Nocera 1998: 193). Seen as a utopian space within which to expand participation, the potential result is a creation of narratives, histories and agendas no longer solely constructed by the state, institutions and academic voices (Ho 2007). As Benwell and Stokoe (2006: 243) point out, this lack of impediments potentially leads to a situation within which people can do what they like, say what they like and be who they like, based upon the indeterminacy and transient nature of the Internet.
Since Rheingold's initial introduction into virtuality and cyberspace, however, scholars have begun to develop a more critical account of computer-mediated communication, suggesting that its organisation is never quite so accidental and egalitarian. Quite aside from information inequality, which sees internet access occurring in 61% of households in Britain in 2007 and 17.8% worldwide, issues of inequality can also be couched in terms of the educational and physical ability to work online, and the time and inclination to embark on a virtual community membership (Bell 2001: 108-109). Moreover, questions of otherness, defined by race, gender and social group, can never be supplanted, not even in the virtual world. As such, the distance initially implied between 'real' identities and the freedom of 'virtual' identities ceases to make sense, as we come to realise that all identities have always been inevitably contingent, changing and constructed. The notion of a virtual identity is simply harder to establish, mainly by virtue of the language originally drawn upon to describe it. A sense of the seeming - or potential - falseness of a virtual identity, which conveniently forgets the malleability of all identities, real or otherwise, has forged a situation within which virtual identities are put at risk of being touted as unreal, inauthentic and inferior. In reality, these identities are no less fluid that everyday/real identities, which are themselves theorised as being discursively constructed and constituted. Indeed, as Benwell and Stokoe (2006: 245, emphasis in original) point out;
'In this version of identity, "virtual" becomes a red-herring: a moniker that perpetuates the myth of the authentic, stable and essential identity. With these arguments in mind, we may decide that "virtual identity" is simply a prosaic term for the identity work that happens to occur online.'
In response to the criticism highlighted by Benwell and Stokoe amongst others, the concept of a 'virtual community' has undergone a sustained period of scrutiny and empirical examination (see Abdelnour-Nocera 1998; Blanchard and Markus 2004; Day and Schuler 2004; McDavid 2004). As such, a general consensus has emerged that seeks to distinguish formations of 'community' from other online gatherings, by extending definitions beyond a critical mass of active participants delineated by an engagement in ongoing discussions. This extension, instead, is mediated by the presence of affective bonds that give rise to, as Blanchard and Markus (2004: 66) label it, a sense of virtual community. This sense of virtual community is something that is experienced and embodied, engendering feelings of membership, influence, integration and emotional connection (Blanchard and Markus 2004: 67-68). In order to protect and maintain this sense of virtual community, particular social behaviours and cues are encouraged, which are in turn used to provide support, control, boundaries, obligation and leadership (Dicks 2003: 188; Blanchard and Markus 2004: 69). While participation in such communities will undoubtedly include those who are adopting a passive style of participation (know as 'lurkers'), active participation remains an integral element. This understanding of 'virtual community' stands in contradiction to the anonymity and freedom often aligned with the virtual world, particularly in its attempts to actively construct a sense of trust, legitimacy and identity both within and in relation to a social group.
Ligali - A Case Study
Benwell and Stokoe (2006: 248-249) suggest that the emergence of 'virtual communities' often occurs as a response by marginalised and subordinate groups to social, political or cultural oppression, and is a visible sign of resistance. One such example that exemplifies the idea of a 'virtual community' is the web presence for Ligali, a non-profit, voluntary organisation actively seeking to agitate for a more accurate and positive representation of African British people in the media (Ligali 2007). The website also states that it is an arena within which more general community concerns regarding equality and exclusion are addressed, underpinned by a desire to bring about cultural, social, political and economic justice. Ligali appeals for the right for self-definition and self-determination, community cohesion, freedom of speech, access and expression, equality, and accountability. Importantly, Ligali attempts to narrate and recall the history of Africa and Africans through the eyes of Africans (Ligali 2007).
Ligali presents a case study within which issues of identity and community are expressed and explored both by the website itself, as a virtual settlement, and through the interactions and pursuance of relationships that occurs through the website. In accordance with the theoretical parameters for a virtual 'community', Ligali attempts to engender feelings of membership, belonging and emotional connection. An important instance of establishing this sense of community occurs through attempts to replicate embodied actions of audio-visual contexts through the introduction of new members, or 'newbies'. Entrance into the 'settlement' is negotiated primarily through the acquisition of a username and password, but attempts to construct a serious sense of community occur, for example, through the topic "New Members Introduce Yourself", found in the discussion forum. This area of the website draws on the trope of 'family' and borrows from the physical world in an attempt to create a community space within which members may feel comfortable with each other amongst 'familiar faces' (see posts by mtDNA 7/1/07; Spirit, 7/1/07; Voo, 8/1/07; Happiness, 19/5/07; Deihutis Wisdom 18/7/07; NubianQ, 19/6/07). To enter the forum, users must read and accept a number of terms and rules that are monitored and regulated by the Ligali Team. As part of the registration process, users are asked to identify themselves in terms of whether they are African (a yes or no answer is required) and are required to provide an indication of their cultural heritage.
As a virtual community constructed around an ethos of self-determination, identity creation and the telling and re-telling of African experiences from African perspectives, it comes as no surprise that the commemoration of the bicentenary of 1807 is heavily featured on the Ligali website. What this provides is an alternative community perspective that stands in opposition to the narratives commonly explored through the discourses of Abolition, providing an additional understanding of what is being remembered - and what is being forgotten. As Riggs and Augoustinos (2004: 223, emphasis in original) point out,
'By talking about certain things we make other things unspeakable; by voicing one opinion we silence others and by drawing attention to certain topics we mask the visibility of other topics. Thus we may position ourselves as blameless, as above reproach, and thus implicitly construct those who are to blame.'
Ligali also provides an example of how the efforts of a range of museums and institutions to deal with abolition and met with in reality. The 1807 bicentenary is thus a contested process of identity recognition in which narratives of the past compete not only for a sense of legitimacy and authorisation, but for a recognised subject-positioning from which to control the acknowledgment of ownership and responsibility. As contributors to Ligali point out, the memorialisation that has emerged out of the bicentenary, while celebratory of the Abolitionists, is neglectful - indeed forgetful - of what it meant to be enslaved, thereby obfuscating the painful consequences of slavery for contemporary social groups. The act of forgetting is significant, for if the legitimacy of groups such as Ligali is recognised, the dominant discourses of the bicentenary must be re-imagined as an implicitly manipulative - and revisionist - psychology of 'us' and 'them', through which contemporary constructions of multiculturalism are subjectively shaped by an inherently 'white' understanding of 'us'. Here, attempts to absolve the issues of Empire are carefully constructed in a subtle language of blame and 'moving on' (see, for example, The Last Slave, various posts on the 'Have Your Say' forum on the Parliament UK website Parliament and the British Slave Trade 1600-1807 and the BBC 'Have Your Say' forum dealing with the debates Should Reparations for Slavery be Paid?), in which community groups such as Ligali are accused of thwarting the processes of 'healing' and 'moving on' as a consequence of their continued agitations for political recognition:
"Slavery was absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with anyone alive today, so why should we be made to feel guilty and proffer constant apologies for it? It is a part of history that, though assuredly evil, was put right 200 years ago, an event which we are now celebrating" (R. Stockdill (Mr), posted 28 Aug 2007, Parliament UK 2007).
While commonly rendered passive within the dominant narratives of the bicentenary story (see the 2007 film Amazing Grace, for example), within the debates surrounding multiculturalism African British are granted an alternative subject-positioning from which they are regarded as actively preventing 'us' from moving on. Ideals of a potentially harmonious and inclusive nation - indeed, a British identity - are thus consciously re-imagined as being under threat by community groups such as Ligali who are seeking recognition and reparations. Paradoxically, then, multiculturalism is itself used to deny the histories of slavery. Indeed, it becomes a deflective mechanism drawn upon to mask painful legacies by focussing instead upon an assumed unwillingness to participate in integration processes. As a planned response, the above sort of posting seeks to actively shift blame and guilt, but it is also a response that operates as a socially available discourse more generally drawn upon to make sense of slavery and issues of racism, without recourse to the latent issues of power and position underpinning the debates.
Without the visibility of virtual communities such as Ligali, the histories of slavery are de-racialised, displaying a shocking ambivalence towards the atrocities suffered by slaves. This tendency, I would argue, is directed by an unwillingness to deal with the implications and consequences slavery has for modern Britain, such as dislocation and exclusion. This ambivalence is exposed by the vagueness with which certain elements of slavery are dealt with - the brutality, the conditions, the painful legacies - in relation to the considerable detail provided for other elements - the Abolitionists, Wilberforce and his resistance. As Edwards and Potter (1992) point out, vagueness performs persuasive discursive work. Indeed, it is difficult to undermine the conditions of slavery if they are not talked about and very easy to extol the virtues of abolition. From here, the sense of responsibility and guilt associated with the act of slavery can be absented, allowing present generations to be exculpated and absolved of responsibility for current inequalities, leaving the celebratory sense of achievement tied up with abolition to be explicitly presented. Ligali, as a virtual community, must then attempt to contend not only with the subtle positioning of 'whiteness' as contingent upon the continued disadvantage of being non-white, but must also struggle to find legitimacy as an 'authentic' and 'trustworthy' voice even though that voice is predominantly heard through a medium that is conventionally dismissed as either seemingly, or potentially, false.
This article reveals the variety of ways in which 1807 has been marked and contested. It also demonstrates the way in which groups and communities invest in the past outside the confines of the museum and thereby highlights another space for museums to reach out to.
- What is multiculturalism, and are concepts of 'integration' actually oppositional to facilitating multicultural debate?
- Are virtual communities legitimate and in what ways?
- How effective are virtual communities in propagating oppositional political and cultural voices and experiences?
- What is the importance of public policymakers, museum curators and others in the cultural and political sector of listening to virtual communities?
Send responses to: email@example.com.
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