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


To me, there isn't much of a disctinction between online friendships and real life ones, and frequently the lines blur between the two. I have just as much nervousness attempting to talk to someone new in real life as I do online (like when I first started talking on GWJ). I have friends that I've known online forever that I've yet to meet in real life, friends that the friendships started online and now are maintained in "real time" and online, and I've got a few friends that I new before the intarwebs that I maintain contact with via the 'net.

The way I see it, the 'net is just one big social medium. iChat/YahooIM/MSN Messenger/SMS are as just a valid communication as the telephone: they're just tools used to talk to each other.

bishop wrote:

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?

I disagree with the no good slumper. Your posture totally shows in your typing.

Damn, good article.

I have noticed that I have lived in my house almost all of my life, I barely talk to ANY of my neighbors, my mom is light friends with 2 of them, but that is it. I know their names, but we are all isolated, maybe waving and saying hi while mowing the lawn or cooking on the grill.

Maybe the reason we don't try and make friends with those in close physical proximity, is the chance that we will end up hating them, and then instead of living next door to a stranger, your living next door to your greatest foe.

I also find it odd going from online relationship to an offline one, as the online part still stays, but things have context switched around and suddenly the person at the other end becomes "more real" in a way.

dejanzie wrote:

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.

Yes, we exist.
I think you're right. I have been registered for over an year, and already lurked around here for at least another year. This is my second post and I still feel I don't have anything interesting to add - except when I see all those monkey pictures, but I guess that's a feature

After a year of lurking, your article just made me revert to "registered" status:)

I guess one of the main points of people turning to online communities and building meaningful relationships there rather than at home is freedom of choice. You don't really get to choose with whom you are sharing your block of flats. But once you find an online community that suits you, it is just so easy to take part in it, whether actively or passively. The downside is, the communities are under an easy threat from trolls and flamers and other weirdos and I happened to be in one of groups (around our favorite online magazine here in Slovakia), where all the important members left one by one, disgusted by the turn from meaningful discussion to flaming. The magazine gave up soon after losing its most loyal fans.

wanderingtaoist wrote:

After a year of lurking, your article just made me revert to "registered" status:)

The downside is, the communities are under an easy threat from trolls and flamers and other weirdos ....

Welcome...and fantabulous name! (I read it the first time as wandering toast...then it made me think of the tao of pooh, which made me want honey on the toast I'd just been thinking of...so now I'll always think something sweet when I see your username...which amuses me to no end.)

And as to trolls and flamers and snarks, oh my!, we have a benevolent dictator who, while sparing of the rod, is not afraid to pull out the ban stick and whack people with it, should they get out of line.