Great column by Rob Walker today in The New York Times Magazine. Topic: a community of Rachael Ray haters at Rachael Ray Sucks Community. (In case you didn't know, Rachael Ray is the, er, over-exposed food celebrity). Says Walker:
The most important rule for those who wish to join: “You must be anti-Rachael!” As with any community, the key to attracting members is not just a clear core idea but one that can be fulfilled in a variety of ways. Members of the Rachael Ray Sucks Community certainly do this, criticizing her cooking skills, her overreliance on chicken stock, her kitchen hygiene, her smile (often compared to the Joker’s), her voice, her physical mannerisms, her clothes, her penchant for saying “Yum-o” and so on. The general tone is suggested by the community’s name for the object of its united spite: “Raytard.”
As Walker explains, this is a community that's been formed around "shared dislikes," which might be a surprising concept to people who think of communities simply as places that attract people with shared "likes." Not at all surprising to people in the communications professions, who have long understood the role that hate plays in organizing groups. After all, what are "like" and "dislike" but two sides of the same coin? Think of the Rachael Ray Sucks Community as a light-hearted instance -- Walker goes out of his way to show how benign this community is -- of a much larger, darker phenomenon. "Shared dislike" is at the root of many campaigns in social, political and commercial marketing, and it has been used for both good (reform) and for evil (genocide).
But what's most striking -- to me -- is that we are now having this discussion in the context of "communities" -- communities, that is, with a capital "C," the online organizations (such as MySpace, Facebook and Second Life) that so many businesses are attempting to join, infiltrate, or emulate. As I have said in many blog posts and at public forums, for a community to be successful, it must have a clear and compelling purpose. The lesson here is that the purpose could be something less than savory (Rachael -- no pun intended).
UPDATE -- "GIGGLES": My wife Eden asks an even better question: if you hate someone so much, why spend so much time writing about them? She suspects that some of the folks at Rachael Ray Sucks Community actually like Rachael, and are like Rachael. Doesn't seem too far fetched. The community site complains that Rachael "giggles incessantly." In his column, Rob Walker describes community founder Misty Lane -- who might be Rachael's most virulent critic -- as "an upbeat-sounding woman who punctuates every other sentence with a friendly laugh." Tee-hee.