I have been thinking about community. Do you have a sense of belonging to a community? (A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common, or a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.)
I don’t belong to my local community. (How do you meet people in your neighbourhood? How do you get a feeling of local community?) I’ve been living in this neighbourhood for four months and I’ve only seen one neighbour long enough to say “Hello” and introduce myself. (Oh, and one neighbour came around to complain about the dog, who was listening to Alain de Botton lectures at top volume and, frankly, upsetting us all.) If I walk up and down my street, all I see is lifeless houses, with the cars occasionally entering and departing the driveways. I guess all the parents are getting to know each other while waiting at school gates and football practice? But for the rest of us; I have no idea how we have any sense of community.*
I don’t have a sense of online community. I follow people on Twitter, and I read some blogs regularly, but I don’t belong to any communities now.
I have experienced it before, a long time ago, and I miss it. Waaaaaay back, in the late 1990s, I was part of a community called L’Hotel Chat. It was a Canadian-based live chat service.
I was falling apart at university, and not getting along with anyone really. I hid in the computer lab, and after several false starts, found this place called L’Hotel Chat where there were people with a common interest – they wanted to meet people from around the world. I gradually became familiar with the regulars, and I liked being able to log in and watch these people interact with each other, and participate. I made some lifelong friends there. I did learn, however, that live chat / synchronous communication in a community is difficult, because you have to be online when other people are online, or you miss out. If you want to say hello to friends, you need to get a routine happening. And live chat tends to encourage… chat. Hello, how are you, where are you from, how’s your week.
Another favourite community was Salon’s Table Talk. It was a large forum, with sections like Politics and Wanderlust, and each section then had a large list of forum threads.
I was drawn to the Imagination section, and for years I was a part of that community, writing and reading, getting to know the other regulars, and using it as a place to think and listen. Because it was a forum, it was asynchronous communication, which was fantastic. You could dip in whenever you wanted, catch up on as much as you wanted, and then contribute. Or you could jump to the end of a thread, and write something without reading anything that had gone before. My favourite thread was “Off Topic” where anyone could post anything… but they had to try not to relate it to previous posts. In that little Imagination community, the strangest and most wonderful things were shared in that thread. Art was created. Mostly by accident.
I don’t get a sense of community from Twitter. I’ve definitely never had it from Facebook. “Sure,” you say, “but isn’t that what your friends are for?” Maybe. Maybe I should be feeling like my friends are my community. Do we share common attitudes, interests and goals? I’m not sure. I think that a feeling of community is a bit different from a friendship group.
What am I looking for? What am I missing, when I miss a sense of community?
Well, I miss how fun and interesting it could be. (Fun! There you are again.) It was fun getting to know people; it was fun being anonymous and being able to re-create yourself online, however you wanted. I liked the diversity of those online communities. It was fascinating! Personalities clashed. People were from different countries, different states, different jobs, different backgrounds; they had different needs, hopes, dreams, expectations and concerns; their styles of writing were very different.
I loved how there was a sense of play. These communities were secretive, anonymous worlds for many participants, and people were able to rewrite themselves. For a long time at Table Talk, no one knew that I was a young female. It was fun and liberating to be unknown, and many people assumed that I was male (and older than I was); it was fun to be treated differently from my normal life. It was fun to write in different styles and voices; about fictional experiences; even trying on different personality traits for size. I liked the freedom of interacting with others without them making instant, inflexible assumptions about me because of my nationality, gender, age, looks or interests. I loved the wordplay and the intellectual play. I miss it. I wish I had some place like that, again.
Where are we anonymous now? Where do we make characters? Where are we fictional people? Are we too old for it? There was this grand period of about 10 years where we were fiercely protective of our real identities, and we had made-up names on our Geocities websites, AIM, Diaryland, LiveJournal, Twitter; even our email addresses were pseudonymous and secretive. Sometime around 2005, with the advent of Facebook, we were forced to use our real names, and we were all growing up anyway, and using our real names in email addresses for work, and on LinkedIn, and then everywhere else… until hardly anyone was using a pseudonym or being playful anymore.
The main problem I had with L’Hotel Chat and Table Talk (in the sense of a longterm community) was that they had no raîson d’être. They were there for conversations, to meet people, to form relationships, to learn, to entertain, and to sell a product (L’Hotel Chat was run by an ISP, Table Talk was run by Salon.com). So selling the product was the real purpose, but the participants didn’t really care about that, and there wasn’t any other topic or purpose tying it all together. Because of this, I had no longterm reason to stay or feel invested in either site. In a neighbourhood community, everyone might want to make the neighbourhood better. They might meet likeminded people who are from different walks of life, but have a common interest. I think that’s why Metafilter is still going: the core purpose is finding the most interesting things on the web, and that’s something that can bring participants together, for a long time.
I hope that the playful aspects of being online, having pseudonyms, etcetera, will come back. We’re in some Serious Internet phase where the largest organisations really, really want us to use real data so they can gobble it up… and so we don’t write abusive YouTube comments. But I hope Playful Internet will make a comeback, and I hope I find a new community.
*Regarding community and children, I found Caterina Fake’s Parenting, Communities and Crime post was interesting.