Valuing Community

Richard Serra, “Television Delivers People” 1973

We spend a lot of time talking about audiences, users, readers, participants. We have to, because design without a user is a moot point. In order to design anything you have to think about how it gets used: consider for instance the language, tone of voice, colloquial expression, etc. But what gets lost in that formulation — designers designing, some anonymous public using — is the way in which design creates community. So the salient question might be the reverse: What is the influence of design on community?

In 1973, sculptor Richard Serra produced a now-seminal video work titled Television Delivers People. Set to happy Muzak™, the video consists simply of scrolling white text set against a bright, electric blue field. The first line is blunt: “The product of television, commercial television, is people.” The point of the 6-and-a-half-minute exegesis is that television shows attract audiences, and networks package those audiences, attach value to them based on metrics like their size, age, class, geographic location, and sell them to advertisers. The content of television is designed specifically to attract and coalesce particular demographic communities that have high value. In short, people don’t consume television, television consumes them. The rhetoric is: We’re making this for you! The reality is: they’re selling us to them.

This may not seem like such a big deal nowadays, but that is the essential, unchanging logic of media. Every designed thing — read that magazine, website, blog, film, tweet, Instagram image — is not designed for a community, its in itself the thing that forms the community, gives it shape, meaning and identity. That’s why communities are often identified by the design and media they consume: MMOG gamers, Wired-readers, indie-rock lovers, NPR listeners, etc. (You could make a case that the t-shirt is one of the most powerful community forming tools in the universe.) And anything that forms a community, and can deliver its members, has an intrinsic value.

Social media is the logical extension of Serra’s original observation. When you hear all that talk about developing a profit model for Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, WhatsApp or whatever, it always comes back to figuring out ways to incorporate advertising into the product; in other words, valuing and selling the community to whoever wants to get their hands on them. The reason Facebook is worth a trillion dollars — or nothing — is directly hinged to how many people they reach. Size matters. One of the innovations social media delivers is the ability to expose the scale of its own reach to its members. (Previously, ratings were an industry secret, now I can follow the weekend box-office receipts via an iPhone app.) My 13-year-old son has 88 Instagram followers, Kim Kardashian has 13 million1. You can figure out which one gets paid to tweet.

It may seem harsh, or overly pecuniary, to depict as warm a word as community in such a brutal light. Clearly there are all kinds of communities out there, even ones who organize against the tyranny of being labeled a community. But it’s important for all of us to remember we are players in a vast network of social and economic relationships. If you are going to play in this arena, its best you recognize that and figure out your position in relation to it. Otherwise you’re just another cog in a very complicated machine.

1Kim Kardashian has 63.8m followers as of March 15, 2016

© Michael Rock