I watch videos on YouTube pretty regularly, and I never found anything questionable about video bloggers referring to the online site and its members as a “community.” However, Baym illustrates a very important point:
The mere existence of an interactive online forum is not community, and those who participate using one platform may comprise very different groups.
Not only different groups—but polar opposite groups who simply use the same platform to get their messages across to the public. And yet, many YouTubers met their best friends via what started as a simple Internet friendship and then expanded into an offline one as well.
I don’t think I’ve ever met friends online, at least not through a game or common interest. The closest I’ve gotten to that is communicating with someone via email for an extra curricular activity over the summer without having ever met her in person. In the fall semester, we happened to be in the same class and we had a lot in common that we didn’t realize when only communicating through emails.
On Twitter, I’ve had similar experiences. I might meet someone at an event on campus just one time, but end up really getting along with them for that hour or two. Then we’ll follow each other on Twitter and find we have a lot in common and build a friendship even though months may pass until we meet in person again. Keeping this trend in my life in mind, I feel friendship definitely works for me in an online context, but also simultaneously in an offline context as well.
That being said, there’s a inevitable connection that sparks online, even with pseudonymous screen names when interests are the same. For example, take the protest Knicks fans are planning for March 19. Being a Knicks fan and a regular commenter on the website, I decided to comment on the post linked in the previous sentence. Other regular commenters know I’m a Knicks fan, and I know who the other Knicks fans are too. We’ll vote each other’s comments up on various posts as a kind of head-nod or fist bump in the form of a click to convey a considerate “I feel you.”
On the post about the protest, a fellow Knicks fan and regular commenter asked me if I was coming on March 19. It was a simple question, but it felt like the boundary between the online Knicks fans commenting on posts and the offline Knicks fans protesting outside Madison Square Garden was blurred—even though all communication remained online. Merely asking me if I will be physically present somewhere made me realize this community of Knicks fans commenting on posts and reacting to plays and the rare wins on Twitter transcends the digital realm. And I don’t see anything wrong with that. Both online and offline friendships reinforce one another.
I definitely feel like I’m a part of a community of commenters on that site, even though there’s plenty of people I disagree with completely. And even though YouTube may not be one homogenous mega-community, I argue it is still a community with a lot of sub-communities within it. Ultimately, a community is defined by its members, and outsiders don’t or will rarely have an understanding of it whether online or offline.