Community, not audience

Don’t just like things! Like things WITH people!

I’ve been thinking about this tweet pretty much nonstop since I RT’d it the other day:

It seems to have resonated tremendously with a certain subset of people; and I hope that it goes on to have a material effect on the lives of at least some of them.

For me, it put into words the meaning behind the stages of experience that I’ve been having since graduating college, a little over two years ago now.

The transition post-graduation is a tricky one. You are thrust from a structured environment of social variety and abundance to, in many cases, a stripped-down existence consisting of Baby’s First Real Office Job, Baby’s First Real Commute, and the punishing demands of Real Fucking Life.

Blessed be the extroverts who can rise to the occasion and create for themselves a support system to shore up the hollows left by the absence of campus life; those folks who, through luck or hard work, go on to experience little to no dropoff in their meaningful practice of learning and loving and living.

I, clearly, was not one of those people, and immediately after graduation I found my world had shrunken down to a mundane microcosm. Everything seemed simultaneously wildly unimportant and intensely vital; the massive and sudden semiotic shift in my environment had me clinging for stability to things like my bank balance and my hair, while willfully ignoring such elements as my diet and the upkeep of my apartment.

This period of my life saw me engaging in the frantic application of many balms: literal, in the sense that I couldn’t stop buying Glossier products, given that the store was mere blocks from my office at the time; and also metaphorical, in that I sought out anything and everything that would offer some respite from drudgery. I marathoned Mad Men and LOST in quick succession. I became addicted to Refinery29’s Money Diaries series, as well as the Reddit /r/personalfinance forum. I scrolled on Twitter and Instagram endlessly, watching my college acquaintances drift further and further into their own worlds, each unique, all seeming increasingly fascinating yet somehow repulsive from my lone, bare promontory of the reception desk.

Coming back to the original tweet, I believe this stage of adulthood is when being part of an audience begins to seem wildly appealing. One watches prestige event television, one closely follows the luminaries of Media Twitter, one signs up for newsletters and listens to endless hours of podcasts. One engages in high-volume levels of parasocial activity with one’s favorite writers, singers, hosts, live-streamers, YouTubers, bloggers, comedians.

One positions oneself solidly in the land of Maturity, a large and highly-populated land full of other Competent Adults With Interests, whom one desperately wants to be both fully accepted by yet wholly distinguishable from, at the same time.

Now I am not trying to discredit any of these activities in their essence. They are the delights of our modern world! But they are, I think, the equivalent of carbs, or sugar.

Actually, let me walk that back, and offer a nutritional metaphor more relevant to my current interests—they’re the equivalent of a diet lacking in Vitamin C. As such, audiences in their purest, most chaotic form have a tendency to trend towards the scorbutic: scars open up and lack a healing mechanism to knit them back together. Nostalgia is overpowering and prevents true perspective from being brought to bear. Et cetera.

It is only reliable engagement with community that stops you, The Adult, from fully coming apart at the seams. (This, of course, in the context of already being a member of a given audience—friends and family are also essential, but not precisely what I’m talking about here.)

Meanwhile, it was dawning on me, a little too slowly, that attending music industry events as a graduate working in the field was an entirely different experience to rocking up to shows as a hustling, eager teenager. Without anything to prove I felt suddenly and painfully bereft, and began to develop a curdling misanthropy towards what I perceived as the “boringness” of everything and everyone around me, to compensate for my feelings of anxiety and fear.

What I was feeling at the time, in retrospect, was the painful lack of community in my life. An industry is an audience: loosely bound by shared interest and intent, and perhaps the same few names on your paychecks, but little else. The music industry depends heavily on communities for its livelihood, and devotes thousands of hours to figuring out how to exploit and encourage them in turn, but it is not one in and of itself.

Herein lies the question: where, precisely, is the boundary between audience and community? How do you know if you’re in one, versus the other? And where does the vague and nebulous and magical term “fandom” fall in the spectrum between them?

An audience congeals around a person, topic or work as a natural sociological event. Within that audience, there may be communities, floating around like individual organelles in the larger body of the audience’s cell.

A fandom is, at its simplest, defined by what you like, and perhaps in what ways you express that like. But an affinity-based community, that is to say a community within a fandom, is defined by who you like it with.

This ties into the happy ending of my story: as if it were destiny all along, I reconnected with my fandom roots, and have spent the second of my post-college years participating in various communities within different fandoms.

These positive experiences have awoken in me the need to shout to the skies, to everyone out there feeling dissatisfied, perhaps unknowingly, with their societally-approved role as a Member Of The Audience:

Don’t just like things! Like things with people!

For some of you, this might seem like the most obvious thing in the world. Like, duh!

But for just as many, it’s not an easy ask. It is soooo much simpler to be in an audience than a community—the easiest fucking thing in the world. As the above tweet put it, it can happen by accident! You sit back, relax, listen, watch, smash that RT button. Sure, you might discuss your Thing with your friends, if they’re also interested, but they’re not your friends because of the thing.

Whereas: a community is purposeful. There is a guiding force to it, an invisible hand of shared passion.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, of course. Communities can, and do, turn toxic. We’re only human. But a community has an immune system, so to speak: whether that’s in the form of a moderator/admin team, or a host, or a consensus system, or just a general, unspoken commitment to figuring shit out. Because vitally, a community’s inherent identity—AKA, the story it tells itself, about what it is and why it exists—lends it a vested self-interest in self-perpetuation.

Friendships want to continue. In-jokes want to be told and understood. Relationships formed through bonds of affinity and strengthened through community have a certain kind of memetic immortality. The best demonstration of this is that common occurrence, in which you and a friend, both members of one group in years past and since separated by an interregnum of differing interests, reconnect instantly over some new shared obsession, and it’s like no time has passed at all.

At the end of the day, there is nothing quite like the thrill of the knowledge that you exist in the minds and lives of other people. Thanks to my communities, I am bolstered by reminders of this every day—that people think about me, that I am real to them as they are to me.

Learning about others’ lives through the medium of affinity culture, too, lends an important element to this type of participation. Instead of seeing things through the invasive, overwhelming lens of the infinite doomscroll, you instead can directly hear personal stories and individual perspectives. It is an antidote to solipsism and nihilism in the best sense.

For me, moving from being a passive member of innumerable audiences to instead being a committed participant in a select few communities has been transformative in terms of my mental health.

Facebook groups, Discords, forums, locked Twitter circles, group chats or DMs—these are all places where community can thrive, within the context of a larger audience. (In another essay I might expand upon the relationship between privacy and community in contemporary digital spaces.)

Of course it is work, and hard work, to maintain and participate in such environments. But so is exercise, so is eating well, so is your 12-step skincare routine, so are all the little things we do to keep our human bodies and brains from disintegrating in the face of the great monstrous behemoth of society and responsibility bearing down on all of us.