What we talk about when we talk about community news

I hate to bicker with someone who’s obviously on the good guys’ team, but I also find that being clear, and only as clear as the facts allow, is an pretty full-on insatiable desire of mine.

And thus I submit that using a term like “intimacy” doesn’t work as a term to describe what geography-based community news sites need to work or what they need to aim to achieve. I further submit that this isn’t just an academic exercise. It matters because folks into the future of news have a tough enough time relating the importance of what we’re talking about. It’s easy for curmudgeons to brush off “intimacy” because it rings of hype to them; it fits neatly into their mindset of techno-utopians offering false promises.

I’m not nit-picking words here, either, or being uncharitable. I don’t take intimacy to mean something super deep or profound like love or friendship or piety. Following @lisawilliams, I take it to mean something like the what the members of an Elks lodge share. They all know one another. They all share a pretty serious mission. Leaving aside the standard language used by fraternal organizations—”inculcation” and “indoctrination”—members of the Elks share a significantly thicker bond than neighbors who vote in the same mayoral race, cheer for the same sports teams, suffer the same air pollution, enjoy the same parks, or whose kids go to the same school.

Members of a geography-based news community don’t need to know one another. They just need to believe that there’s a pretty good chance that they know someone who knows them both. Or they need to believe that there’s a pretty good chance that they might want to know one another. (These beliefs probably don’t even need to be justified or true, in the epistemic jargon.)

Members of a geography-based community need only trust and have some regard for one another. I suspect that this trust and regard require more than a thin explanation like liberal cosmopolitanism’s basic respect for persons. There’s got to be a neighborly connection—a sense of common civic purpose and a sense of shared space, resources, and destiny. But I do not believe that this trust and regard require a thick explanation as implied by a notion of “intimacy.”

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2 Responses to “What we talk about when we talk about community news”


  1. 1 Lisa Williams 2009 January 31 at 4:13 am

    I’m sure the fact that I see online communities — including those driven by news — on a spectrum that has search engines on one end and dating sites (horror!) on the other makes some people recoil. I consider that a productive discomfort.

    You say “Members of a geography-based news community don’t need to know one another,” and suggest that they (should? are?) motivated by “a sense of common civic purpose and a sense of shared space, resources, and destiny,” to pick up the paper.

    Those are the central points where we differ. I do think they need to know each other, and I think their real motivations to get the news are much more modest and personal.

  2. 2 Joshua Young 2009 January 31 at 7:25 pm

    Thanks for coming by, Lisa!

    One point of clarification. I don’t believe that readers’ “sense of common civic purpose…” is what motivates them to pick up the paper or, ahem, fire up the browser. I believe that something fuzzy but basically important like that is what motivates them to buy into the same constructive social norms when they read the paper for whatever private reasons they have. Yes, they read the news for modest and personal reasons, but they’re good participants in the community for community-based reasons.

    But I now realize I fell down on the job in failing to point out why I think this conclusion of mine might actually be really good news. (Note to self: don’t forget to end on the upside!) The idea is that we might be able to have successful geography-based news sites or services with thinner relationships than “intimacy.” That might be a good thing because intimacy can be really hard to achieve.

    That doesn’t mean intimacy isn’t a tremendous goal and a great good social resource. It just means maybe we can get by just fine with less.


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