The trending word for gatherings, groupings, meetings of the minds online seems to be — community. Job ads look for community managers. Blogs get written about how to build a community around your brand.

In the recent past, 20th century, thinkers have positioned societies as opposite to communities. The former are structural manifestations; about faceless organizations of humans into functioning arrangements. The latter have carried a nostalgic sense of emotional belonging that relates to one’s roots; whether geographically, culturally, or ideologically. Communities are cozy, nurturing, supportive — communal.

The past decades, observers have noted that the world has entered a postmodern state where nothing is permanent — ideologies, all kinds of power relations,  let alone structures of societies. They have argued that as we see this insecurity and impermanence in our highly formalized institutionalized and impersonal societies, we desperately seek refuge. We long for warmth and support. We want to connect as communities, but can we?

Enter the Internet. Fears of impermanence lift. Changes are embraced, seen as a way to bring down old borders — whether geographic, economic, social. Many celebrate the democratizing power shift of the online era and argue for a formation of a global public arena. The most optimistic voices hail the transformation of passive  ‘mass audiences’ and mass consumption, not only into a Global Village (where virtually everyone knows about one another, virtually), but into communities acting out of an inherent desire to participate, unleashed by social media platforms and tools. And online, we all can have a say, create independently, be whom, and with whom, we want to be. Right?

How free are online communities? How spontaneously are they formed, how unrestricted are they can operate? In the documentary We Are Legion, a member of the online group the Anonymous describes their way of organizing:

No one forces you to participate. You can always say you’re out. People act online like a flock of birds, just swirling around, until one flies to a certain direction — and then others follow.

Every idea/l of a  community — and democracy — includes some kind of co-dependency. As in: We are responsible for one another. We want all to have the same opportunities. We care for those in need, as helping one means helping the entire community.

So: the question of online communities is: Do they thrive on independence or dependency?  Is there a coop where all the pigeons meet; where they can come together, decide to act together, with a direction, for a common cause? Or, is the ambiguous swirling, and an instinct to follow at times, the new model for today’s communities?