Virtual Community: Can We Survive It?
Community is a hot topic these days. Many people now complain that they feel isolated, that community has disappeared, and with it, the experience that community offers — belonging, inclusion, grounding, shared goals, connection, etc. The institutions that used to provide us with the experience of community — our schools, neighborhoods, spiritual organizations, etc. are not bringing us the same sense of connection that they used to. So what’s changed?
I recently asked a young woman why she spent so much time playing The Sims 3, the virtual character video game. Her answer: she liked the sense of community that it offered her. She could go out into the neighborhood, walk around and see other people in their houses and get a real sense of the community. As a result, she felt less cooped up in her own home and more a part of the world. The world she was talking about of course was a virtual world. When I reminded her that the people she was looking at in the other homes were not real, and the neighborhood she was wandering around in, also fake, she laughed and said she knew all that, but it didn’t bother her.
While people may still be participating in real-world communities, they are not engaging in them in the same way as they used to. Because we now rely on social media for our sense of connection and belonging, for community, we have removed ourselves to some degree from our interaction in the physical world. We are still there but in a less intimate way. At a recent visit to a local café, I noticed the so-called community table, a long wooden farm table that conspicuously evoked the sense of warmth from an earlier time, when generations of families convened over day-long meals. On this day in 2012, nine of the 10 people seated at the community table were staring into a personal screen of some kind. I laughed out loud, imagining the day when ten iPhones will occupy those community seats, sharing stories about the humans that they have to put up with.
Because we know that we can always get on Facebook, or tweet or text, the very manner in which we are interacting in the physical world has changed. We are less engaged and less committed, less dependent upon this moment of being together for our sense of connection and emotional nourishment. Physical interaction has become an impediment to our engaging with technology. We have to hurry up and finish with the people in front of us so that we can get back to tweeting and texting to people who are somewhere else. The system has flipped: People are now the distraction and our on-line world, the main stage.
It used to be that the time we spent together had an inherent importance to it. We could reach each other by telephone, but being together physically was special and an opportunity of sorts. If we were not visiting with each other, we were at home and apart. Now, together and not-together time is blurred. We are living in a continually together space, interacting constantly with no separation between the private and public experience. Sadly however, the more virtually together we are, the less genuinely together we seem to become.
The problem is not that we are shifting our sources of community, but rather that online communities cannot offer the same emotional nourishment that physical communities can. After hours of participating in virtual communities, people report feeling empty and isolated, just the opposite of the experience that physical communities provide. “But the online communities are just launching pads for people to meet in person,” supporters argue. In my research however, I have not found this to be the case. Social media is an end unto itself with its community experience remaining primarily in the online world
Since the beginning of time, humans have come together to create communities — because they are important to our well-being. We need them, to feel grounded and a part of something larger than just ourselves. The young woman who is deriving her sense of community by wandering through a virtual neighborhood, walking her virtual dog, looking into the houses of other virtual characters, is not, in my estimation, receiving the benefits that real community offers.
We are not going to lose our online communities any time soon and in fact they are proliferating. But they are not and should not be a replacement for our real life communities. When we are in direct physical contact with one another, the people we see on a regular basis, we can remind ourselves that such moments matter, can remember to land there in the interaction. It is important to honor the importance of the physical community, and the profound nourishment that it offers — nourishment that we in fact need. Physical and emotional presence are the building blocks of community. Both require effort, but it is effort wisely invested and unmistakably rewarded.