With my upcoming SXSW Interactive panel, I have been thinking a lot about what we are looking for in online communities. This post is the first of several that I hope will start discussions about the future of “community.”
I recently learned a lot about my Great-grandfather’s life in a 4 hour road trip with my mother. He was a Texas farmer who took great pride in his independence. He and his wife worked very hard to supply themselves with everything they possibly could. The neighborhood barter economy or resource pooling supplemented most of what they could not produce themselves. Money was used as a last resort. Great-grandmother sewed all the clothes. The neighbors pitched in to buy a communal tractor. My grandmother’s university education was purchased with pigs and cows at the Belton, Texas’ University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
My Great-grandfather lived in a community that was critical to his lifestyle, to his idea of independence. The neighbors pitched in when someone needed help, pooled resources for everyone’s benefit and traded with one another. I don’t know if my Great-grandfather liked any of his neighbors, agreed with their politics, faith or enjoyed the same hobbies (probably didn’t have much time for hobbies). But they were bonded in a very fundamental way. Tolerating one another had very real material benefits.
Today, observers raise concerns that we increasingly seek like minded people in the digital space. But, hey! What a delight to discover 100’s, even 1,000’s, of people who share our interest or perspective. Consumer Tribes is an academic term for consumer’s sometimes loyal, sometimes flighty interaction with company brands. Loyal brand communities represents the Holy Grail for modern marketers since modern consumers are perceived as fundamentally distracted, distractible.
Is that what is really going on? Are we just chasing online cocktail parties of like minded folks?
I’m not sure. I wonder if we seek what my Great-grandfather had; community on an existential level. We change jobs, move across the country, rely on money and contracts (life and health insurance, loans, investment funds), not other people, to provide security in our lives. The kind of local interdependence my great-grandparents, even my grandparents’s had, is no longer the fabric of our society.
I have been in my new town less than 2 years. After such a short time, who here can know me well enough to count on me when they are in terrible need? Our modern sensibility would find it odd for me to enter into a loan with my neighbors like my Great-grandfather did. What has gone astray with our new definition of independence?
Are we journeying through the digital space, looking for some illusive sense of community that has gone missing? I see evidence of this behavior: a sheltered teen’s 700 Facebook friends, a single, rural woman constantly and obsessively tweeting with 100 people she has never met…
But can the digital realm provide satisfaction?
My cousin, who has played on the same guild in Everquest for over a decade, tells me stories of how guild members arrived in times of great need (death, illness) even before family members. Guild members may change jobs, towns, and so on, but they congregate faithfully several times a week to combine resources in the virtual space. At times, these decade long relationships are stronger than family bonds.
What do you think? Will we find ways to migrate more and more material as well as emotional reliance to our digital communities? Are barter sites and sites like Kickstarter.com, and ughlyquilts.org going to become the new communal resource pooling?
Will you ever go in on a tractor with me?