What is community and who is my neighbor?

6 03 2009

The dictionary — yes, I’m talking about the old two-volume, ton and a half monstrosity that has been sitting in the bookcase forever — defines the term “community” as “a number of people having common ties or interests, living in the same place and subject to the same laws,” or “likeness; similarity; identity.” But what does that really mean for us today?

According to Caroline Heine, as “people are constantly evolving in their needs and behaviors, so to is the meaning of community, both to those who are members, and those who seek to serve and enhance a community’s experience.”

I know from personal experience that people do not have the same kind of person to person interaction that they enjoyed in the past. Even in a town as small as mine, I have had neighbors move in across the street and have never actually spoken to them. Some might make the argument that it is because of this that people have begun trying to fill the void through virtual communities.

The Web has served to broaden the definition of “community” and extend its boundaries — in some cases making them seem non-existent; distance is no longer an issue. What was once confined to neighborhood watch programs, yard sales, bake sales and PTA meetings, is now a global phenomenon. From sports junkies and gaming fanatics, to parenting and more “exotic” behaviors, there is a place for one and all.

Because of this, online communities are constantly gaining popularity. According to a study done by the Center for the Digital Future, membership in online communities has more than doubled in the past three years.

It doesn’t matter if you live in Bangkok, Brooklyn or Great Britain, all you need is the Web and all of your social and personal communication needs will be fulfilled… or will they?

The anonymity of the Web creates its own unique set of problems. While members get to experience the feeling of belonging and acceptance, there is no real guarantee that a person you are having your heart-to-hearts with is who they say they are, no matter how much they know (or seem to know) — avatars can only be so helpful. I think Brad Paisley had an amusing take on this in his song, “Online.”

I think there are many different ideas of what truly makes a community. However, one overarching theme is the feeling of camaraderie, participation, belonging and safety — almost a family sense — that it gives to members. Online communities, while they have their purposes, are merely substitutes for the real thing. These “interactions” cannot compare to the person to person interaction that take place when you actually take the time to know and talk to someone. When the chips are down, a hug via emoticon just won’t cut it. Some think that an online community can meet their needs, and more power to them. But for the rest of you, go out and live your life. Don’t waste it sitting behind a computer screen.

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