Won't You Be My Neighbor

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.

- Elysium

Comments

I know many of you guys better than I know anyone in my neighborhood with the exception of the people living on the left (my friend from high school plus roommate) and right (we share a duplex, so it's almost required to get a little acquainted). So I know exactly where you're coming from, Elysium.

This article makes me think of another aspect of the online community that is much more prevalent than in neigborhoods in the "real world".
Do any of you guys have that neighboor who peeks out there window at you everytime you leave the house? The little old lady or the creepy man down the street who seem to watch your every move. Well online communities have this type of person, albeit not nearly as creepy or weird. Those of us who feel like we participate in a community, but instead just take and take from those of you who make the community what it is. That's right, I have been a lurker on this site for at least a year now. (step 1 of the "stop being a lurker" plan). Of course there are many more lurkers at any given time than there are actual posters. In fact as I write this there are 58 members and 269 guests logged in. Are online communities more of a place for those who want comfort from the feeling of community without the feeling of vulnerability of actually putting yourself into that community?

Good piece, Ely. Technology has been a major part of my life for a long time, and along with that I have been active in many online communities. I have had many memorable experiences, met some folks who became friends in the real world and generally benefitted quite a bit. Indeed, I long held the opinion that these online communities were a vision of our future and a good one at that. However, events of the past two years have turned me around and I now fear this vision of the future, rather than embracing it.

I moved into an apartment complex here in San Diego with my girlfriend a while back. The complex seemed much like any other, from a superficial perspective. Things quickly changed once we moved in. We were visited by no less than 50% of the residents (4 of 8 apartments) welcoming us to the neighborhood. From there we enjoyed long nights out on the complex patio, drinking and BBQ'ing with our neighbors. One of our neighbors passed away this year. Her sister, who she had lived with her whole life, still remains and the whole complex came together to pitch in and help her get groceries, do household chores, etc. One neighbor even let his dog stay with her so she wouldn't have to be alone.

The neighbors are always looking out for strangers coming around when people aren't home or signing for packages delivered by UPS. I am always greeted by the 8 year old girl from apt #1 when I come home from work. Yesterday she informed me that she had just gotten NSMB for her DS. So, I watched her play a bit and told her that Mario is way cool, to which she emphatically agreed.

So, what I have discovered is that these real life communities are rewarding in ways that the internet simply cannot emulate. The feeling of belonging to a place is so satisfying. I shudder when I think that I may have to move to a place where I must isolate myself once more.

When I look around and see that my community is most certainly an increasingly endangered species, I wonder if maybe we ought to take a step back and ask ourselves: Are we truly benefitting from these advances in the transfer of information? Does the internet truly enrich your life?

As my college buddies one by one leave town (I was fortunate enough to find a job in the same wonderful town where I went to school) I find myself struggling with this issue myself.

Seeing as most of my friends are only moving about two hours away (into the Bay Area), and I'm married to my best friend, there is a temptation (that so far I have succumbed to) to not bother building meaningful friendships with anyone new in the physical world. I live in apartment complex in a college town, so the majority of my neighbors only stay around for a year (maybe two), and my co-workers all seem to have widely different interests from luna and myself. Much of the time it feels like it is much more convenient to simply come home and log on to Xbox Live and get to know the people that I've met on the internet rather than to try to invent some activity that I can share with the people who surround me in real life. After all, our online community is filled with great people who I already share a number of common interests with, and friendship comes much easier when that is the case.

But there is still that nagging feeling that luna and I should really be trying to find people we can spend time with in flesh and blood, aside from the wonderful group of people that we now have to drive to San Francisco to visit with. But do we? If we have people that we enjoy spending time with, does it really matter if they live one or a thousand and one miles away? I don't know. On one hand, maybe that nagging feeling is there only because society tells us it should be. On the other hand, maybe it really means something.

That neighborhood sounds a lot like my current living situation. I live in a nice group of townhomes, but even after living there for a few years, I can't name anyone outside of my two flatmates. Not to say that I think the internet is to blame for that though. I'm not sure we can say that the rise of online communication has killed our local communities. You could easily say the rise of the telephone or television have been equally destructive.

I can empathize with both sentiments. This coming from one who was a military brat (and a prior service Army man myself) who is both at home with talking to friends in person and on the internet.

I personally don't believe that having friends in an online community is going to be the downfall of civilization, even at the expense of having little or no friends in person, but that depends solely on the person you are talking about. Not everyone is going to behave the same way in the same situation. I agree that this is a phenomenon that we will have to take a wait and see attitude with and hope that we don't let it get too far out of hand.

Excellent piece Ely. The main reason I feel more at home in an online community versus my own neighborhood stems mainly from the fact that I don't have to worry if any of you guys are weirdos/sickos. If you are, at least you're terrorizing your own neighborhoods.

Get off my lawn!

Duttybrew wrote:

So, what I have discovered is that these real life communities are rewarding in ways that the internet simply cannot emulate. The feeling of belonging to a place is so satisfying. I shudder when I think that I may have to move to a place where I must isolate myself once more.

When I look around and see that my community is most certainly an increasingly endangered species, I wonder if maybe we ought to take a step back and ask ourselves: Are we truly benefitting from these advances in the transfer of information? Does the internet truly enrich your life?

And this is the crux of the issue... there is something "safe" and anticeptic about having so many online friends. No messy personal contact. You don't have to put yourself out there; no worries of going outside

No doubts that online communities can have strong ties and be decent people (see Child's Play charity donations, etc.), but I don't think it bodes well with our society that most of us isolate ourselves from the actual physical reality we live in.

You've hit on an area of both academic and professional interest for me: tinycultures. Tiny Cultures, like ours, are a unique function of the internet, and they are, I believe, fundamentally different than any previous form of community in history.

But it's different, not better or worse. There's no magic answer to explicating these differences, nor is it a necessity to do so. But aknowledging the difference is important. Personally, I have spent most of my adult life in some form of virtual society far more than a physical one. I'd be a very different person if this weren't the case.

A few annectodal points.

In the '80s, my group of university friends was largely based on a campus chat room. Friday nights often consisted of 30 of us sitting in the same VT100 lab, at the same time, talking to each other on screens while the room remained silent. Even back then we recognized how wierd this was. Some of the folks from that era have become my closest long term face to face friends. I know all of them extremely well.

In the '90s, I courted my wife through AOL and telnet. I lived in Australia while she was in San Francisco. We "chatted" for hours a day, as if we were sitting next to each other. To this day, I often spend half an hour a day on IM with her, even when she's just a floor away.

in the 'OOs, I work almost entirely in isolation, connected to several tinycultures at once: a work culture, larege connected by IM, email, and shared web spaces; this one; several other hobby related ones; and most notably, an extended geographically based group of friends. This last acquired family is some 20-30 people strong, and rarely does a week go by when there aren't 20 people (kids included) at my house for dinner, cocktails, and child-induced mayhem.

None of these would happen without this new kind of tinyculture. I don't think it's a bad thing. I do think it can be incredibly empowering.

V-O wrote:

Excellent piece Ely. The main reason I feel more at home in an online community versus my own neighborhood stems mainly from the fact that I don't have to worry if any of you guys are weirdos/sickos. If you are, at least you're terrorizing your own neighborhoods.

To compound on that, the expansion of the concept of homeowners' associations and managed communities also have caused the desire to become involved with one's neighbors in a positive fashion to diminish. I saw this all the time when I was a Community Manager (aka "that guy I call when I want to tell on my neighbors"). As much as I see the value of the HOA, it puts the members into an immediately antagonistic relationship with their fellow residents, either because they are desperate to keep the neighborhood pristine, or because they want to live the way they want, without external interference.

Additionally, neighbors are neighbors purely by random chance. It's a rare living situation where all the residents share a mutual interest in anything in particular, or who move into that community because of the people, as opposed to the aesthetics of the community, cost, or any number of other factors.

However, involvement in online communities relies on the person finding a group that has a shared interest in one or more areas. Most of us on GWJ probably got involved as a result of finding that the people here were A) more mature than your average gamers, B) were able to write with some semblance of grammatical prowess (which, thanks to Elysium and Certis, came about whether said poster wanted to or not), and C) capable of understanding that a 15-hour raid on Molten Core on a Wednesday night was not bloodly likely to happen.

Awesome article, Elysium.

Considering what we know of the people in your neighborhood, Ely, we don't blame you for hanging out here more often.

Rubb Ed wrote:

B) were able to write with some semblance of grammatical prowess (which, thanks to Elysium and Certis, came about whether said poster wanted to or not)

Heh.

Amazing article, Elysium.

First off, one for my homie, Mr. Rogers

Online communities don't match real ones, as much as I wish they could. There is a sense of connectivity, a bond that is quite real and sustaining, but not so sustaining that it can replace a hug, a laugh, or a cold beer and a BBQ. It's almost as if we're all that creepy lady behind the curtain, calling each other on the phone. Or more accurately, it's as if all our houses had back porches facing each other, and every now and then we go outside and yell to each other. Are we interacting? Yes. Are we providing emotional/financial support? Sure. But it's not the same as having your friend over to for dinner to complain about the government and how the Republican party has thrown away all that they professed to believe in.

Maybe one day, when we're all holed up in an underground bunker fighting off zombies together, we'll develop that closer relationship we're all craving.

I promise not to fondle Elysia's elbow.

I promise not to fondle Elysia's elbow.

Ah, subtext. My old friend.

Jolly Bill wrote:

Maybe one day, when we're all holed up in an underground bunker fighting off zombies together, we'll develop that closer relationship we're all craving.

I was going to say I was weary of the choice of a bunker as a safe haven due to the difficulty of growing food indoors. However, since a bunker is just a big basement I think it would suit gamers well.

I sometimes wonder how those of us accustomed to online relationships would respond to a sudden loss of connectivity--say, a massive failing of the Internet. Would we grieve the loss of those friendships and associations? Would we seek them out via other means?

People online don't really know each other. Even when they meet, they simply end up not-knowing each other a little less.

1Dgaf wrote:

People online don't really know each other. Even when they meet, they simply end up not-knowing each other a little less.

As a blanket statement I just have to disagree with that. "people online" means nothing. If you mean "people I play a game with once in a while", or "that guy Rabbit who posts over at GWJ" then sure, you know them as well as, say, the guy you play against once a month in your over 40 soccer league.

But I communicate daily with a few folks online, whom I met online, who are now some of my closest friends. We hang out in person, we game together in person, etc... We just happen to live in different parts of the country. I know at least two non-living-in-their-parents-basement and fairly normal and attractive adults who met the person they then married virtually.

What makes things wierd is change in context - online or off. Have you ever accidentally discovered that someone at work, who you certainly "know" from business contexts, is also deeply entrenched in some other subculture of yours? It's happened to me several times. "Bob? What are you doing here? I didn't know you hung out in leather bars?"

It's no different than that gap-leaping you make when you meet an online aquantaince in person for the first time. You make this HUGE context shift.

Like ANY kind of communication medium: you get out of it exactly what the two parties want to put into it.

I spoke with someone (a guy) for about eight years online. We were as good as friends as is possible in that situation. THen, for various reasons, we weren't. Whether the disinitegration of the frienship would have happened, and been as swift, if we'd been friends 'IRL', is open to question.

I find it easy to lose contact or context with people in real life. Doing so online was even easier.

By "they then married virtually." do you mean they get married online? So their weddings were consumated by fevered keystrokes and cries of "WHO IS YOUR ELF? WHO IS YOURR ELLLFLLLLL!"?

rabbit wrote:

I know at least two non-living-in-their-parents-basement and fairly normal and attractive adults who met the person they then married virtually.

1Dgaf wrote:

By "they then married virtually." do you mean they get married online?

Perhaps this would be better structure:

rabbit should have wrote:

I know at least two non-living-in-their-parents-basement and fairly normal and attractive adults who met virtually the person they then married.

Of course, that's just my interpretation.

The Fly wrote:

I sometimes wonder how those of us accustomed to online relationships would respond to a sudden loss of connectivity--say, a massive failing of the Internet. Would we grieve the loss of those friendships and associations? Would we seek them out via other means?

Bars. Especially strip bars.

I find it easy to lose contact or context with people in real life. Doing so online was even easier.

I find it equally easy to maintain Real Life and Online relationships, and it's probably fair to say I know, say, Gaald as well as I know my best neighbor, and most of you better than I know the guy down the street. People suddenly lose contact all the time, even with best friends, because situations are as likely to change online as off.

I don't think an online relationship can become particularly meaningful unless there is a real life component added, but once that happens there is no limit. I guess there's an online relationship ceiling, but to say that any relationship is less meaningful once it manifests in the offline world doesn't make any sense to me. How we meet isn't the point.

"I guess there's an online relationship ceiling, but to say that any relationship is less meaningful once it manifests in the offline world doesn't make any sense to me."

I didn't mean to imply that. I think I'm just jaded. You know, like a trumpet that's been blown badly. Or a dessert that's been made with skimmed milk.

I did indeed mean it that way Grump, but "who is your elllllf" is WAY funnier...

We know most of our neighbors...but the sucky part is that the ones I really like are mostly all moving. The rise in interest rates is killing this neighborhood, where apparently, many people had ARMs. And one of my very faves is moving to Fargo, ND...because that's where Microsoft is sending them. (Daaaaamn you, MS!)

As to online communities, I lurve you guys.

Does that mean I can fondle your elbow?

My wife and I have been very fortunate throughout all of our goings and comings to have had WONDERFUL real-world neighbors. The street we live on is filled with wonderful people that we regularly get together with in the evenings as our kids play in every yard in the street. That being said, though, when we moved from Louisiana to Wyoming, I found incredible comfort and stability in the fact that GwJ was the same in WY as it was in LA. That's definitely stating the obvious, but being able to jump back into a community of friends who were still joking about the same things they were when I packed up my computer the week before made the transition much easier.

Sure I may never meet any one of you face to face, but that does not mean I will get no less enjoyment from your "company" or have any less appreciation for your help. Relationships and friendships as we grew up knowing them have been changed forever by the online community. I'm sure technology will, in short time, reduce the impersonal nature of online communities even greater. Would I enjoy playing a game with a friend in a room any less than one half way around the world when voice chat communications lets us joke and kid in the exact same way? When video technology becomes more integrated, the barrier of anonymity will have very little substance left. I believe friendship is what you make of it.

I don't know about the lower risk with online communities. I was as nervous posting my first post here as I usually am in real life chatting to strangers. And looking at other first posts from the many many lurkers here (yes, I'm looking at YOU!) I'm not alone. Maybe it's because GWJ seems like a real tight community from the outside.

I think that residents in an online community have a higher level of control in their interaction. This in turn promotes a better comfort level; which I think encourages participation. I think we still fundamentally draw self efficacy from our physical selves. Sever that and you have a brilliant oppurtunity to reach the person behind.

Many people who meet online do indeed, become fast friends. I think being able to "turn off" interaction at any time creates a "open" atmosphere. In time, as you gradually learnt more about each other, a relationship developed. In real life, many times we are rejected before we even open our mouths; what skin colour we have, how pretty we are, whether we slump or not, and countless other silly reasons. Online? just our thoughts, and recently; our voices.

agree? disagree?