3, 2, 1…Let’s Jam

The graduate program in economics at George Mason University was a formal community of a very particular sort. As students, we had been granted membership in that community though a selective (or so I tell myself) admissions process, and kept it by paying out tuition and keeping a full course load (without failing out). We learned economics, yes, but we also learned a common language; the language of Hayek, of Ostrom, and above all, of Coase. In social gatherings among classmates, future spouses joked to one another that they were quite tired of hearing about this Coase fellow. Near the end of the program, some of us wondered out loud, “what are we going to do when we have to go out into the world and never be surrounded by so many people like us?”

We have all managed to survive, somehow. My career has had very little to do with what I learned there, and was probably only impacted in ways that (GMU econ professor) Bryan Caplan would appreciate.

But what I really came away from GMU with was a connection to their scene.

In 2008 when I started the Master’s program there, the department was fairly unique in the high number of professors writing on blogs or putting out podcasts. Part of my desire to enter the program stemmed from having followed these professors beforehand. But it wasn’t until after I started that I really dived in deep.

A scene is different from a community, though it is no less “imagined;” that is, the intersubjective product of games played among meaning-making individuals. In the online scene of which the GMU econ professors are still a part, they form a sort of center of gravity; one network cluster among a few, the boundaries of which are ill-defined and ever shifting. Where communities are shaped by membership and belonging, scenes are shaped by audience and participation.

A common audience forms the glue between GMU econ blogs and podcasts, Slate Star Codex, Modeled Behavior, and a constellation of sites and communities that form the scene I used to be an active participant in. This audience participates in shared experiences – in this case, most frequently shared experiences of media consumption. There was frequently a book of the moment, which everyone who was part of the scene either read or read about. Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation was an example that comes to mind, but the book does not necessarily have to be by someone in the scene, or even have much to do with the typical interests of the audience in that scene.

A coworker who follows the comedy scene closely gave me a good example of this recently. He said that a comedian’s wife had passed away and her book would be published posthumously, so the comedian was promoting it on comedy podcasts even though it had nothing to do with comedy. This coworker said that he decided to give the book a shot, if for no other reason than everyone else would be, and he wanted to get the jokes about it and other references to it. You don’t have to keep up with every new text embraced by the scene, but if you stop keeping up with any of them, you’re likely to find yourself falling out of its orbit.

Membership offers a formal boundary for communities, in relationality if not in geography. I don’t want to exaggerate the concreteness of communities; there is churn, there is overlap with other communities, and there’s substantial grey area. But the ebb and flow of scenes is of another order entirely. Participation, either in the audience or as the object of their attention, is more easily withdrawn than membership, which often requires some formal step. More to the point, it is far easier to dip your toes in. You can go to one metal concert without becoming a part of the metal scene. It’s a far bigger hurdle to become even a part time student at a university. And when you do, there is a paper trail to show it; the line between when you go from a casual concert-goer to a part of the metal scene is vague in the extreme.

Scenes are often called “communities” as in “the online economics community”, and that’s fine; that’s one way the word is used. I distinguish between communities and scenes here not to get at the essence of either word, but merely to observe that there is a distinction to be made. Formal community and scenes are two forms of meaningful existence in the modern world, where we have left the primordial village community of the Romantics’ fantasies far behind.

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