Just a few years ago I lived in a townhouse community called Cranberry Ridge, which always seemed odd because, to the best of my knowledge, Cranberries do not grow on ridges. I suppose Cranberry Bog would not be an attractive name for a community, but you must admit that it would be far more accurate. Regardless, this neighborhood had several dozen addresses, and probably a hundred or more people living on one short, isolated street. Despite the fact that I shared half my walls with my neighbors, and that we lived our lives within a few yards separated by only a thin layer of drywall and Tommy Hilfiger paint, I probably knew the manager of the nearby gas station better than I knew the people next door. Our street was not a community, nor really a neighborhood, but simply a place where people adjourned to their isolation and privacy, unaffected by and uninterested in the lives of those in the closest proximity.
I blame myself for lack of effort as much as I regret my neighborhood's apparent lack of interest. I could have taken the initiative and knocked on the doors, and invited everyone over for dinner, but, while that may have been a well-intentioned intrusion, it seemed evident that it would still have been an intrusion. It left me wondering whatever happened to the general concept of neighborhoods, and community.
Well, folks, you're lookin' at it.
I've been thinking a lot about the strength of online communities as I've watched people with no other obvious commonality besides forum participation come together in meaningful and heartfelt ways for the family of One_of_47. It leaves me with questions to which I have no real answers. What does it mean that some of the most tightly knit, and reliable communities in our technocratic culture have become those that exist primarily in a virtual environment? Why do I know people in a forum better than I know my neighbors?
Some dismiss online communities entirely as a meaningless shadow of real relationships, which I think can be chalked up entirely to short-sightedness, and there is, of course, still a certain stigma associated with getting to know anyone online too closely. I certainly felt strangely uncomfortable the first time Certis and I met, as if I were crossing some line of imminent social failure by having created a relationship online that was crossing some threshold of reality. It was as though, until that point, the three years we had known each other were entirely unreal by virtue of the medium alone.
But, that's a stigma that is rapidly disappearing with the popularity of community forums, online dating, Myspace, and the like. The idea of creating meaningful relationships online is not just enhancing existing communities, but apparently replacing them, at least for some. There is a rapidly growing segment of the population that are far more likely to hop online and check a favorite message board, than chat with a neighbor by the mail box.
There is some reasonable concern to be voiced about that trend; that in becoming part of an online community, people are actually isolating themselves from the rest of the world. No "˜lol' in the world can replace sharing a laugh with a friend. One might even make the argument that we are adding fuel to the fire that has left neighborhood streets quiet, and neighbors anonymous to one another. The underlying assumption being that an online community is not as valuable as one developed in person.
And, I admit that something of the intimacy and companionship of direct person-to-person contact is lost in the translation. Even as I'm constructing this musing for you now, I do so in relative isolation, from the comfort of my own chair. I make the relationships and interactions on my own terms and at my own convenience. While some of you might feel compelled to respond, and even develop your own discussion tangential to this piece, our contact is limited to words on a screen.
But I reject the notion that these communities are not as powerful and positive as any other. While the online medium is a fairly unique way to bring people together, it does seem to be every bit as significant as any traditional method, and the results seem to be the same.
I don't want to be maudlin about this, and I certainly don't think participation in a virtual environment serves as an adequate replacement for good old-fashioned flesh-and-blood contact. But, there are good things that online communities can bring to its participants, be they members of an online forum, or even a MMO guild, if the right kind of environment is encouraged. And, as the technology of the internet develops, and society accepts and traditionalizes these kinds of interactions, virtual relationships will become as ordinary and expected as getting to know a neighbor. Perhaps more so.