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The Case Against ‘Community’

Why the C-word won’t work for commercial magazine publishers

Andrew Calcutt, 8 January 2010

‘Let’s make it a community’.

To publishers wondering what to do with their magazines in these difficult times, the prospect of turning titles into communities, sounds increasingly attractive.

But there is good reason to be sceptical of the notion that inside every magazine, there is a community struggling to get out. The call for magazines to become communities is really the sound of frightened publishers struggling to escape from the awkward situation they find themselves in; and, as is so often the case with tactics born of desperation, going down the communitarian route will turn out to be no help at all.

Oil and Water

The first thing to recognise is that ‘community’ entails the idea of being bound up inside a particular group of people, and contained within them – something like being married to them all. But the normal positioning of community members one to another – we’re all in it together, forever – is the direct opposite of the typical orientation of readers towards their favourite magazines. They are their (the readers) favourite titles because they (the magazines) know who their readers are, of course; but also because they leave these readers enough room to exercise their discretion. Liking a magazine depends above all on being able to say – because the magazine allows you the space to say it – ‘ooh, I don’t like that’, or, ‘I like this dress/jacket/car/house is much better than the one she was photographed wearing/driving/living in last week.’

Magazines are a discretionary purchase; nobody’s really going to die if they don’t get one; also, readers are paying, generally speaking, for the opportunity to exercise their discretion. By contrast, community and its unmistakable connotations of connection, commitment and containment, strongly suggest the suspension of discretion, at least temporarily; and this suggestion goes directly against the grain of ‘the magazine experience’ as most readers wish to enjoy it.

Community and magazines go together as easily as oil and water.

There’s a lot of it about

The craze for community extends far beyond the magazine business. Among those currently signing up for community are national and international politicians, who want us to follow their lead in forming all sorts of communities (though many of them could do with some community spirit to share among themselves). For example, the leaders of the five, deprived ‘host boroughs’ where London’s Olympiad will take place, are hoping that London 2012 will engender a sense of community stretching across these strife-torn areas, encompassing all the people who live anywhere near the Olympic Park in East London.

With so many people talking about community, it is noticeable that one and the same idea is being asked to solve far too many, different problems, from blood on the streets of East London to blood on the carpet when magazines face closure. But even if ‘community’ is workable in some such instances, it surely can’t be a solution to all of them: the more it rises to the status of panacea, the less likelihood that the proposed treatment is anything more than a placebo.

Put another way, if you were told that social ailments to do with atomisation and the absence of solidarity, and economic ill health arising from advertising recession and digitisation, are all susceptible to the same wonder drug, you would start to wonder, wouldn’t you? But these are just some of the problems which are supposedly soluble in ‘community’.

Not how it’s mooted

This is reason enough for not taking ‘community’ at face value. Instead, let’s take it that talking up community is really saying something other than that which it purports to be communicating. Underneath the rhetoric of community, what’s really going on? Here are a few possibilities:

(1) You wish. Magazine publishers have rarely felt more vulnerable. The ‘digital revolution’, though over-stated, has shown that readers are not ‘theirs’ either to command, or to hire out to advertisers at whim (in any case the latter now have drastically reduced funds with which to rent a readership). But for publishers to come to terms with the fickle character of today’s readers, they would have to be in a robust frame of mind. To the contrary, nowadays they are unusually fragile; and thus they are more likely to apply an imaginative fiction to their problems – invent stuff, rather than developing a realistic strategy. This is what they are doing with the idea of ‘community’. Since the premier problem for magazines today is the disloyalty of readers, imaginative publishers have responded with the fiction that readers come in established groups of people, i.e. communities, who are by definition unable to make excuses and leave. Not so much a strategy for dealing with the problems facing the magazine industry, this is more an exercise in wishful thinking on the part of those who are supposed to be thinking ahead.

(2) Branding is Dead, Long live Branding. If community is the supposed saviour of the current decade, branding was panacea to the previous one. However, it is now widely accepted that branding failed to cohere magazine producers and consumers because it was too obviously a top-down device which could only alienate the people at the bottom, i.e. consumers. Community, on the other hand, is understood to be of the people, for the people. The upshot is a revised version of branding allegedly led by the plebs themselves in place of a privileged caste of brand planners. Trouble is, the essential problem of branding and the unwarranted investment in it – the fact that it relied on apparently unlimited accessorising as a poor substitute for product innovation, is retained in the revised version. ‘Community’, it transpires, is branding without the style.

(3) Gizza Job. In the 1980s, there was an infamous British television drama series, Boys From The Black Stuff, which represented the effects of deindustrialisation on the working class. It featured a manic, unemployed builder who went from one postindustrial place to another shouting ‘I can do that. Gizza job’. Nobody did. Faced with the partial decommercialisation of communication, it seems as if magazine publishers are behaving in much the same way: going online; seeing the communities which already exist there, and declaring ‘I can do that. Gizza job’. But why on earth would we need magazine publishers to create online communities for us when we’ve been doing it ourselves for the past 15 years? If publishers were setting out to put themselves on the dole, they could hardly make a better job of it.

Political Baggage

On the one hand community is not the magic bullet that will blow away the economic problems facing the magazine industry; on the other hand it is a politically loaded concept. Though it is not expressed as such, the key message of ‘community’ is that you who are in the community are different (and inferior) to us professionals (politicians, journalists, publishers) who remain outside it. Ironically, this tacit message is the exact opposite of the noisy invitation for us all to come together in ‘community’. Nonetheless the unspoken message is received loud and clear by readers. They’ve had plenty of practice: the deeper, divisive meaning of community has been foisted on them for more than a hundred years.

The term ‘community’ was developed by nineteenth century historians seeking to identify the distinctive characteristics of modern society as compared to pre-modern times. Before we became modern, they said, the majority of people lived in communities. The lives they led were close-knit, and also closely tied to a particular location and the limited range of other people located in it, to the exclusion of almost any other social contact. Thus if the community ever saw an unknown face, chances are it belonged either to a group of passing traders, or the tax man from London, or (more or less the same thing) an invading army.

Compared to the mobility and anonymity of modern times, life in a pre-modern community was extremely narrow. Also, the restrictions of this way of life were replicated in the mind’s eye of the people living it. Never having been beyond their isolated community, they could not see beyond it either; not even to the point of being able to identify their one and only reality as a ‘way of life’. Here the indefinite article, ‘a’, is the most significant word in the sentence, because it signals that there is now more than one ‘way of life’ available. Whereas city dwellers were used to making comparisons between multiple phenomena – comparing diverse experiences and evaluating various kinds of behaviour, as they also compared different commodities on the market – the parochialism of peasant communities made them incomparably idiotic, i.e. compared to modern, urban life, their lives were much more limited, partly because the singular mode of their well-defined existence did not spontaneously contain the cognitive capacity for making an indefinitely extended range of multiple comparisons.

This much is substantially true: modern life and its concomitant mental capacities are vastly superior to the subsistence existence of pre-modern peasants. However, when History developed as a subject in the nineteenth century, it was as much concerned with imposing social order to the present as it was with putting the past in chronological order. Thus there was also a contemporary, political agenda inherent in the historical distinction between urban and village life, ancient and modern.

In their political guise, nineteenth and twentieth century historians went on to say that the peasant mentality lives on: it continues to exist in the untutored minds of today’s working class. Unlike us, they have not learnt from modern times, nor acquired the mental capacities associated with urban life. When they came to live within our city limits, they brought with them the limited mentality of their peasant existence; and the communities in which they live should be policed and governed accordingly.

Putting the past in order thus provided professionals with the rationale for giving orders to the proletarian ‘communities’ of today’s modern cities. Conversely, the idea of ‘community’, as applied to almost any group of people in a modern context, nearly always implies a patronising attitude towards them. To use it is to say: they are not like us; they cannot see beyond the limited range of experiences which constitutes them as a community; whereas we are looking at the world from a higher vantage point – clearly we are, because from where we are, we can see that they are indeed a community.

Appropriately enough, when millions of working class men came home to Britain from the Second World War, bringing with them not only the experience of mass slaughter but also the sense that they could win almost any battle they entered into, Britain’s bureaucrats found the courage to put the working class back in their place by telling themselves that these soldier-workers really belonged in communities; that they could never be happy if they were separated from their community for any length of time. This was the political purpose served by perhaps the most influential work of British sociology in the post-war period, Family and Kinship in East London by Peter Wilmott and Michael Young. (Having co-written the Labour Party manifesto in 1945, the latter went on to found the Institute of Community Studies in Bethnal Green, recently renamed the Young Foundation in memory of him.)

Tables Turned

There have been rare instances of people turning the tables on ‘community’ and using it to define their struggle for equal rights. For example, when black people in Britain were constituted as a particular group identifiable by government-sponsored, socially constructed restrictions on their mobility (where they could and could not live, what kind of job they might and might not expect to do), they replied by saying, yes, we are a community: you’ve made us into one; and having been pushed together we will fight together to free ourselves from the definition you’ve imposed upon us.

In the fight for civil rights undertaken by various oppressed groups in the 1960s and 1970s, although ‘community’ was sometimes their starting point (black community, lesbian and gay community etc, etc), the prize they were eyeing was really the end of community. To the people struggling for it, the emancipation of oppressed minorities meant that those who comprised such minorities would no longer be contained within the community which they were previously restricted to.

In short, people with power don’t normally choose to describe themselves as a community. In the particular, highly politicised circumstances of the 1960s and 1970s, when some social groups described themselves as a community it usually meant that they were already fighting for powers previously withheld from them; and thus for the abolition of community. But whenever some people designate other people as a community, it usually means that the former have a fairly low opinion of the latter. They can afford to hold such a low opinion, because there are historical precedents for thinking that ‘community’ is comprised of people who are essentially powerless.

History Today

Perhaps you think this is reading too much history into the use of the word ‘community’. But the current meaning of words necessarily depends on what they have previously been used to mean; and if magazine publishers do not mean to imply this history in their usage of the term ‘community’, then they should choose another one. If they of all people cannot find the bon mot, what business do they have being in the magazine branch of the communication business?

‘Community’ is not the economic panacea; worse than that, it carries negative, political connotations which magazine publishers would do well to avoid. At best, their usage of it sounds like a trendy curate trying to get down with the kids at the youth club. Much better to offer readers something they can’t readily do for themselves.

Dear publisher, just for a change, why not try investing in high quality, professional magazine journalism?


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