(This post has been two-thirds written for a couple of weeks. I've just returned from a gathering and a conversation which has reminded me to progress it and publish it — see the first and second posts in this series for what I'm doing.)
Several years ago I began to wonder about online expressions of community. I was young(er) and full of fire, and I believed that it was real and it was good. I remember sitting in a bar having lunch with an older and wiser colleague, trying desperately to convince him of the potential in 'online church'. I think the only thing I convinced him of was a slight softness in my head. That was then.
Now, with all these 'online communities' and 'social' sites springing up all over the web, I have to ask: is 'community' the correct word? Whereas once I would have shouted my 'yes', now I'm really not so sure.
While I am wary of overusing dictionary definitions in this kind of discussion, I'll let dictionary.com provide the following perspectives:
A social group of any size where members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.
A social, religious, occupational or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists ("the [...] community").
the public; society.
A group of organisms or populations living and interacting with one another in a particular environment.
From those definitions, maybe not.
Given the constantly changing and developing nature of language, perhaps 'community' is becoming the right word, but for now I'm not really comfortable with using the same term I could easily apply to our family, our church, a street, a neighbourhood.
But since this technology facilitates communication, I suppose it could be moving us in that kind of direction.
What about that communication?
It's an inherently different thing to sit and have a face to face conversation with a friend, perhaps over a good meal, than to talk on the telephone. The phone is a different experience again from a hand-written letter, which differs from a typed letter. All are some way from an email.
I'd suggest that at least some of the difference is down to decreasing levels of direct physical presence in/through the medium. At one end of the spectrum we can experience the full range of nuance and meaning, while at the other end there is nothing that is ever directly encountered by both parties — electrons are transmitted and translated until beams of light take over...
How often have you been party to a major misunderstanding of an email sent or received? It happens regularly, to me and to people I know.
Technology has given us myriad tools and venues for sharing and transmitting information, with increasing volume and efficiency. The one that has caught my eye recently is Twitter. I didn't get it at first, but when I discovered a couple of friends were using it I decided to give it a try. I was quickly hooked. (You can maybe get some idea by browsing over my Twitter stream.) Based simply in keeping communication open between people, even in a micro-broadcasting or micro-blogging kind of way, it's fun, entertaining, cute and very occasionally useful.
What Twitter isn't, I think, is substantial or meaningful. It's more of a "because I can" sort of thing, and a good example because of how it encourages quantity over quality of communication. In a world beset by measures and targets, it's easy to forget that neither volume nor efficiency are necessarily the thing.
Community is formed out of relationships, which are in turn based on communication. The quality of each affects the others.
I'll be returning to these twin questions of communication and community.