Sunday, August 02, 2009

Internet Community and Developing a Global Worldview

Community is an interesting subject for me. I was an outcast in my childhood community, one of those kids who didn't fit in. My personal community were the kids who were left— the other outcasts—and I didn't choose who was in my group. In college that changed. I purposely developed friendships there, some of which have lasted my whole life.

But I saw a interesting phenomenon at the college I went to: the friendships open to me (and others) tended to become stratified by class. This was in Boston in the late 70s. One thing many people might not know about Boston is that you can tell a person's class background by their accent. That used to be done by the clothes a person tended to wear as well (L.L Bean, for example, as opposed to Red Sox sweatshirts and caps). But you can fake that. Far better to go by the accent alone. People in London understand this. Think: Cockney vs upper class. You know the difference and you might think you know what it means. Separation, difference, otherness, perceived superiority. It plays out exactly as you might think.

In California social class is hard to perceive. There's the Beverly Hills persona -- which might not even be real -- and then there's everyone else. The society in coastal California, at least, stratifies more subtly. But you see it there, too, again typified by the clothes one chooses to wear and not much else. Tie dye, dreadlocks and tattered shorts identify one group. Italian shirts, a tie and pressed pants another. There's a large cross section who proclaim their individuality by wearing clothes from Indonesia, India and other Third World countries—they're all about "diversity." But they rarely if ever choose to diversify enough to include people who wear sweatshirts with a sports team logo into their mix. If clothes are who you are, in California that game is played to the max!

In eastern Arizona almost everyone off the reservation seems to dress the same. The guy with the pink mohawk and baggy pants stands out like a sore thumb. . . but his car is covered with uber-Christian bumperstickers proclaiming the need to repent before the coming apocalypse. Coming from Santa Cruz this is the opposite of what one might expect. He's just as intense about his Christianity as his neighbors—he just expresses it in an unusual way. Everyone else dresses like they bought their clothes at Walmart (and most of them probably do). Bland, nothing special, nothing extreme and nothing, usually, that would identify anyone as creative or artistically-inspired in any way. This community, compared to California, is at the opposite extreme.

And then there's the internet where nobody knows what you're wearing when you're sitting in front of your screen. There are so many versions of community on the internet it's hard to know where to even start analyzing the trends going on there. But I have noticed one thing: a lot of honest conversation going on mixed in with the junk and mundane stuff. And while there are groups specifically designated by interest or difference it's impossible to regulate. You can fake identifying characteristics and infiltrate a conversation if you want. I haven't been interested in that but, if done with purpose, it does allow for some interesting possibilities.

Another thing is that the players are never restricted to only who is in your own backyard. Paul just received a very nice helpful comment on something he wrote from someone in England. People from India, Iceland, Poland and Norway contact us fairly regularly. And now on Facebook I'm reconnecting with community members who I may never see again face to face. I love it that we can share a semblance of community that way. It's bringing us together in a way we couldn't imagine before. And almost everywhere on the internet the conversations frequently start without the perceptual barriers in place that might otherwise keep people apart. I don't know right away what class background you're from, the color of your skin, if you're right wing or left, conservative Republican or Democrat, or even what country you may be from unless you tell me. There are no identifying factors to get in the way.

The bad news is that people who think they know me as part of their group are now sending me hateful emails intended to convince people that Obama is the next Hitler. Ironically, that's not just extremely offensive to me as a Democrat. Imagine how the neo-Nazi groups must feel! And yet, isn't that interesting? This crap isn't able to just go on behind closed doors anymore. I, theoretically, could have an email conversation with this person or send a different kind of email to the same group. If she grew to like me because of our distant internet interactions she might even grow curious enough to pay attention to what I have to say!

It could go the other way, of course. I'm considering the tactic of asking her to take me off her list and that would also be a perfectly legitimate thing for me to do. What we want to do with these new means of communication is part of the task we have in front of us today. We created the technology but, if we're not aware of it and make choices about what we use it for, technology will tend to shape us. We can use it for flame war and to fan the flames of discontent like the person spreading Obama hate above or enjoy connection with all kinds of people that cut across race, political persuasion or even international boundaries that really never had a good reason to exist. We think we need these boundaries and, maybe, in terms of emotional safety we used to. But the world is forever changed. It's a global playing field now—even Paul and I have clients in other countries now. It's fun to get to know people with very different world views. People who have been participating in internet communities as educational and science professionals (the purpose for which the internet was originally designed) have known that all along. And now —as long as we insist that the Internet remains a neutral, freely accessible environment (there's a move by certain entities to change that)—we could change the world just by allowing the merging of global identity internet interactions tend to create.

We created the technology but like ALL technologies we invent (agriculture, the wheel, stone age and bronze age tools and weaponry, etc.) the innovations we come up with will eventually change us. Having fun getting to know our neighbors across the globe —indeed, becoming able to think of people from other countries as our neighbors again—is the first step to becoming a world community and that's the first step to what we all say we've always wanted: peace on earth, goodwill towards women and men.

1 comment:

Melanie said...

I often wonder if the kids growing up now will even think of community in terms of geography any more.