Community vs Communication

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.

Freedom and Liberty, Rights and Privileges

As a longtime public servant of sorts, I’ve found it personally and ethically important to steer well clear of partisan politics when declaiming from the public soapbox that my blog offers. When I have written on political matters, I’ve sought to straddle a middle ground, by encouraging civil discourse between those of differing views, or asking that both the left and the right be able to justify their “research”, or imploring people to not use intentionally provocative words like “socialist” or “Nazi” or “teabagger” in such tense civic times as these.

Such central positions tend to come naturally to me, I think, because I’m a native Southerner, well and happily raised in an Evangelical Christian, Marine Corps household, a proud military veteran myself, and with a household income that puts me in one of the most-heavily taxed brackets (all of these traits commonly viewed as defining “tags” of the contemporary conservative), but yet I’ve also spent most of the past quarter-century north of the Mason-Dixon line, much of it working for nonprofit organizations associated with either the social services or arts or educational sectors, all viewed as bastions of extreme liberalism. I move easily in both worlds. And I respect those who work for common good, locally, at a State level, or nationally, from either side of the political spectrum, if that work is done in good faith, without bias or prejudice.

Unfortunately, as you move further from the center in either direction, it seems increasingly rare to find work being done for the common good without such bias or prejudice. I, frankly, find it appalling to ponder how many citizens of this Nation want to see our President and other elected officials fail miserably. And I found that sort of sentiment equally appalling during the last administration as well. As a political centrist, I yearn for nothing less than the greatest successes from the men and women who are duly elected under the rule of law to lead us, whether I agree with them politically or not.

I love the concept of the loyal opposition, but I fear it’s dying out in our Nation, which is terrifying to me. In the same way that strident left-wingers licked their chops and rubbed their hands with ill-concealed glee as President Bush struggled with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, so today do strident right-wingers relish the struggles of President Obama in dealing with the despoiling of the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon accident.

How tragic and shameful this is, when political operatives seek to gain advantage from the suffering of their fellow citizens! How poorly media charlatans and hucksters like Michael Moore, Glenn Beck, Anne Coulter, Janeane Garofalo and Rush Limbaugh serve the public good with their cheap shots from the fringes, while never actually doing anything themselves to improve anything except their own bank balances. While I don’t much care for Al Franken, either, he earns my respect for having put his money where his mouth was by running for office, and actually seeking to work within the system to effect the changes he believes in. Good for him.

One of the things that bothers me the most in today’s political discourse is the never-ending series of claims from both extremes of the political spectrum that our “freedoms” and “liberties” are methodically and intentionally being taken from us. For what it’s worth, I don’t use those words as plural nouns myself, but prefer to think of specific rights and privileges (plural) that engender the more ephemeral concepts of Liberty (singular) and Freedom (singular). Pluralizing and de-capitalizing “freedoms” and “liberties” creates what I consider to be a false sense that they are just long laundry lists of specific items, so that any time any item is removed from the list, Liberty (singular) and Freedom (singular) are compromised. I think that’s a self-referential and dangerous postulate, and I am sick and tired of the glib “we are all frogs in a pot, slowly boiling to death” analogy that defenders of this viewpoint trot out ad nauseum when this topic comes up. I’m not that stupid. Please don’t say that to me again. Or the Kool-Aid thing. Thank you.

I’m also a political scientist by training, so I tend to take long, macro views, and when I look at the rights and privileges available today to every citizen of the Nation, compared to the rights and privileges available at the time of the Constitution’s adoption, I see a long, steady enhancement and expansion of Constitutional protections granted either by amendment or by legislation or by rulings from the Supreme Court. At the opposite end of the spectrum, if I take the shortest and most narrow political view, meaning how I live my own life, I also have no sense that the rights and privileges I experience as a citizen have been diminished in any meaningful way during my lifetime.

I’ve asked here and in other online venues for people to tell me, personally, what “freedoms” and “liberties” have been denied to them by either the Bush or Obama or other recent administrations, and the answers tend to come in one of two forms: (a) scary things that could, hypothetically, happen, but haven’t actually happened to the people writing about them, or (b) piddly-to-churlish things like “I have to wear a seat belt when I drive,” or “I have to take my shoes off at the airport” or “I can’t smoke in my office anymore.” Me? I don’t mind ceding such rights and privileges to the greater good and safety of my fellow citizens.

And I think that’s the fundamental rub I have with all of the “freedoms” and “liberties” talk: much of it comes across as selfish whining from people who just want to be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want, regardless of how it might or might not impact their fellow citizens. And that doesn’t feel, to me, like living under the rule of law, or being party to a social contract, or anything else beyond a petulant, foot-stomping, childish, “me me ME” view of the world around us. And that, in turn, makes me feel like we have become a Nation of Whiners, unwilling to work selflessly for the common good, concerned only about ourselves, and routinely electing politicians who are pathologically terrified of asking us to sacrifice. Few of us want to be inconvenienced. Few of us want to be told “no.” Few of us want to work hard to improve our Nation, if doing so involves something more than gathering occasionally to wave signs and shout platitudes at each other.

I think one of the worst examples of this in recent years was the Bush administration’s recommendation after September 11th that we should all continue shopping and going about business as usual, because if we didn’t, then the terrorists would have won. The attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center were the most grievous assaults on our Nation since Pearl Harbor. After the original day of infamy, the Nation joined together to ration, sacrifice, enlist, enroll, volunteer, home-garden, black-out and otherwise do what needed to be done to win the war against fascism in Asia and Europe. But after September 11th? Nothing. Just keep shopping, running up debt, and trying to flip your house for fun and profit. Fast forward ten years, with the economy in shambles in large part due to the debt crisis and housing bubble having popped, and consider how well that socioeconomic strategy worked out for us all.

As a former military officer, I grieve not only for those lost on September 11th, but also for those whose fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, and brothers and sisters have spent much of the past decade fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while we continue shopping and whining. My admiration for those people and their families is boundless. We are all so fortunate to benefit from their sacrifice, and it does them no justice for us to stay at home and carp about seat belts, regulations against salt in food, soda taxes, and shoe screening while they fight, and suffer, and die to defend our freedom to throw ugly words and ill-formed sentiments and half-facts at each other.

I am proud to live in a Nation that continues to provide me and my fellow citizens with a rich tapestry of rights and privileges. And I am proud of those who fight to defend us, and of those who work to support and nourish the rule of law, the common good, and the social contract that binds us as a Nation. And I am most proud of the Freedom and Liberty that I possess, for which, sometimes, I must sacrifice “freedoms” and “liberties.”