Through more than two decades of travels about the series of tubes that comprise the online world, I’ve often found myself pondering the nature of community, as that word is applied to groups that form and function in virtual spaces.
I’ve watched the word “community” being ever-more widely and casually used over the years to describe clusters of physically remote individuals interacting collectively online, via an ever-evolving spectrum of technological applications, from ARPANET to the World Wide Web, from bulletin boards to LISTSERVs, from mailing lists to MMORPGs, from blogs to tweets, and from Cyber-Yugoslavia to Six Degrees to Friendster to Orkut to Xanga to Myspace to LinkedIn to Facebook to Google+ to whatever the next killer social app may be.
But are the groups that form in such virtual locations truly communities in any meaningful human sense? When evaluating traditional definitions of the word “community,” several key themes emerge:
- An organized group of individuals;
- Resident in a specific locality;
- Interdependent and interacting within a particular environment;
- Defined by social, religious, occupational, ethnic or other discrete considerations;
- Sharing common interests;
- Of common cultural or historical heritage;
- Sharing governance, laws and values;
- Perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some way from the larger society in which it exists.
If you’re willing to accept that a “specific locality” or “a particular environment” may be defined by virtual boundaries, rather than physical or geographical ones, then it’s generally pretty easy to conclude that, yes, online groups can, in fact, meet the most basic parameters for declaring that they are communities. But other elements embedded within those defining traits raise more difficult questions and considerations, including (but not limited to):
- What, exactly, is an individual in a world where identity is mutable? Is a lurker who never comments a member of a community? Is a sockpuppet a member of a community? Are anonymous posters members of a community? If a person plays in an online role-playing game as three different characters, is he one or three members of the community?
- How are culture and historical heritage defined in a world where a six-month old post or product is considered ancient? Do technical platforms (e.g. WordPress vs. Blogger) define culture? Does history outside of the online community count toward defining said community?
- What constitutes shared governance online? Who elects or appoints those who govern, however loosely, and does it matter whether they are paid or not for their service to the group? What are their powers? Are those powers fairly and equitably enforced, and what are the ramifications and consequences when they are not? Is a virtual dictatorship a community?
- How important is “distinctiveness” to community, when online groups are often defined by what they are not as much as by what they are? Are online groups merely the ultimate manifestation of Peter Gabriel’s prescient 1980 track, “Not One of Us,” wherein he asked “How can we be in, if there is no outside”? And can you truly build a community of peers within an Orwellian world where “All bloggers are equal, but some bloggers are more equal than others”?
At root, the fundamental fallacy or flaw with online communities is the fact that virtual gatherings cannot (yet) replicate physical gatherings, as their impacts are limited to but two senses: sight and sound. While these two senses are clearly those most closely associated with “higher” intellectual function, learning and spirituality, the physical act of gathering or meeting in the flesh is much richer, as it combines those cerebral perceptive elements with the deeper, more primal, brain stem responses that we have to taste, touch and smell stimuli.
Exchanging a message online removes any ability to experience the physical reality of actually touching another person, be it through a hand-shake, a kiss, a squeeze of the arm or a pat on the back. There is no ability to taste and feel the texture of the food we discuss in a chat room, or the feel of crystal against the teeth as the first sip of wine passes our lips. The nuances of facial expression and inflection are lost in e-mails, often leading to confusion or alarm where none was required or intended. The physical act of community building is a visceral one that appeals to, and requires, all of our senses, not just those that can be compressed into two-dimensions on our computer screens.
Two-dimensional communities are, ultimately, destined to disappoint for precisely that reason. While it’s become cliché to compare the dawn of the Internet era to the dawn of the printing press era, it’s important to note that the earlier cataclysmic shift in the way that information was preserved and presented (from spoken word to widely-available printed material) did not result in the elimination of the physical gathering, upon which all of our innate senses of community have been defined and built. I have come to believe that community requires physical connection. It is deeper than an e-mail, more resonant than a blog post, more important than your hit counts or number of followers.
At bottom line, for me, “communication” occurs online, but “community” must be rooted in the soil or the flesh. So I consider myself a member of the University at Albany community, or the community of Latham, New York, or the community of Naval Academy Alumni, or the Capital Region music community, among others. And I look forward to soon becoming an active, engaged member of many new communities in and around Des Moines, Iowa, where we will be moving in November.
My current and future communities involve geographic boundaries, shared interests, common heritage, supportive beliefs. And while the members of my communities may choose to communicate with each other online (since there’s no escaping the fact that we spend a lot of time in front of computers, every day, whether we like it or not), the communities themselves are not defined by what happens in virtual space.
And that makes all the difference in the world, I think.