Wednesday, August 15, 2007

On community

A lot changes in your life when you get married, goes the conventional wisdom. Maybe your name changes (mine didn't), maybe you plan to start a family (not so much here), maybe your relatives got too drunk and now they aren't speaking to each other (thankfully, a negative).

I'm not going to get into the relationship aspects of what changed for me when I got married. But one thing that did happen was a pretty seismic shift in the way I looked at community. It happened on our honeymoon, in a cabin at Willamette Pass, Oregon. Before leaving Ashland, I had just finished reading a blog post by an Internet friend, where she asked for advice on what to do with a financial situation. As it usually happens online, 30 or 40 people responded with suggestions. As it usually goes with people telling you what to do online, she took none of them (and was no better off for it).

I was venting about this, in our cabin, to my new spouse. It sounds funny to call him that when I've known him seven years, but there you are. Why even ask!?, I complained. Nobody's going to ever take the advice of someone on the Internet. So then we got into this discussion, while I cooked pasta puttanesca on the stove and the temperature outside dropped into the 40s, about what online communities are good for. I said, kind of tongue-in-cheek, they were good for naming your dog and your kid. Who hasn't seen those polls? "What should I name my kid" and then 5 suggestions which you're supposed to vote for. I wonder if the one that wins ever gets picked. In my experience the name that's chosen wasn't even on the original list, proving that these people had the capability to pick out the perfect name without ever involving the Internet.

He said: "For all of history before 1990, people were able to name their dogs by themselves."

Anyway. With the dog name poll out of the way we started talking about more serious Internet and community issues. I won't reproduce the entire conversation here, but what I came out of it (and this is the changey part) is this: The greatest investment of one's social energy should be in their in-person community.

This is way different from how I'd thought before. I know people for whom "the Internet" IS their social life. I never thought it was weird, just figured there were more people they could relate to online. The problem is, is it really relating, especially when it's blogged (I'm thinking more LiveJournal than blogger) and not directed to anyone? Email is one thing. Email is like a phone call, but quiet. Text BBSing and LJ, the two Internet social avenues that I've had anything to do with, feel to me more like ... consumption. Oh, it's all coming together, isn't it. Well, it's funny, but it is.

When I read a post from someone I have never met face to face, and it's not "to me," I feel almost like I'm reading a book (depending on the quality of the writing, I suppose). Who hasn't wanted to jump into a book and make friends with the characters, or tell them exactly what they think? Maybe give them advice ("It's coming from INSIDE the house! Don't trust that guy!"). Maybe just bond with them because you're so much alike. Is the Internet one big book, and we all are characters and we all are readers? I think for some that might sound actually attractive. But to me ... well, I like to have a drink with my friends. Go over to their house and play with their dog, swap clothes, have them over for eggnog. I think I may be stuck in the 1950s. (Really it's the 1880s. I'll get to that in another post.)

There's a certain kind of energy you have to put into face-to-face interactions. It takes way more investment -- emotionally, physically, mentally -- sometimes financially -- than doing the same thing online. There's a certain part of the brain that lights up when you see another human face, and it does not light up when you get even the most personal of messages sent to you online. I think the investment is worth it. I don't think face to face, local, in-person community should fall at the hands of something that's much EASIER.

The Internet is good for a lot of things. What I'm doing now, for instance -- reading others' progress toward a certain end (simplification, financial independence, environmentalism) and sharing my own experiences toward this same end. The point is to gain understanding about what we've undertaken. I'm likely to add a thrift blogger to my reading list, but I'm not likely to add a monster truck fanatic's blog to it EVEN IF I love their "personality."

The Internet is good for information, and relating in a goal-driven way. The Internet is great for keeping in touch with friends (the ones you see and love in person) who are far away. It's cheaper than long distance and it's a good way to send family photos. But the Internet is not a substitute for community.

This is so different from what I believed since I got online in 1995 -- even while maintaining a pretty large circle of real-life friends and acquaintances -- I felt like you could never have enough Internet friends, too. Even ones I'd never met. Even ones I met and didn't get along with in person. If someone was interesting (and who isn't?) I felt compelled to add them to my list of Internet friends, and this was before LJ collated them all into "friends." But it started going into overdrive. The bigger your Internet circle gets, the more interesting people you meet and the more you and they start to think of one another as "friends." And become invested in each other's lives -- emotionally, not just intellectually invested.

When it got to the point where I'd rather sit home and chat online (to someone I'd never met in person) than go to dinner with some friends of the family, I knew something had gone wrong. We only have a certain amount of energy that can go toward socializing. I'm pretty energetic and I have this limit. When time is invested toward online friends, that energy and time will take away from OFFline friends, or even people right there in your own neighborhood. The relationship with your store clerk, I will argue, is more important than the relationship with someone who shares your interest in the poetry of Phil Rizzuto (RIP, Scooter) who lives across the country. I hadn't believed this to be true until a few months ago. Now it's pretty much unshakeable.

I have a lot more to say on this subject, including: my mom's assertion that you can't be picky when it comes to local community (you may not like the way that store clerk dresses, but unless he's a total asshat, it's still important to interact with the guy); the Internet's ability to feed the instant gratification urge (I write something; I don't want to wait till I can show it to my girlfriend at dinner in a week. I want feedback on it NOW!); the Internet as a place to share things you would not share with your girlfriend at dinner or with anyone who knows you in real life and is liable to label you a freak based on what you share (I wouldn't show my cousin or my husband's best friend's wife this Harry Potter fanfic, but there are 20,000 women online who will eat it up) -- and whether that stuff should be shared at all. Does every bit of information about every person out there with a computer want to be free, as the open sourcers say? Or is there some value in the self-censorship we have to do to maintain our real-life relationships?


kt said...

I agree with a good chunk of this!

tk said...

It's funny to be writing about this -on the internet-, but that's the way it goes. Such is the dichotomy.