Saturday, November 17, 2007

Ask not what your community can do for you...

Social networking is big. Duh, right? That is what you might have just said to yourself.

“Duh, AJ, what rock have you been hiding under? Everyone knows social networking is big!”

What I’m suggesting though is, perhaps, social networking is bigger than just “big”, that perhaps it is historical. Clearly history will write a place for what is going on right now in that people are communicating in ways that have never been possible before. I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest this (and if you know an author I can read on this, leave info in the comments), but I’m saying that social networking is foundational; it is laying the groundwork for the next big social global historical shift.

Humans are using technology to make up for something that time had started to take away, social interaction. The role of community has not changed, where we are going for that community has. This is, of course, not to suggest that social interactions via technology are better or worse then those that take place face-to-face, it simply means that an easy and accessible tool for allowing interaction with a greater number of people, over a large stretch of space, has stepped in to fill a gap where local interaction seems to have started to fail.

When the world was tiny, all we had to worry about were those in our village, or maybe a select few from neighboring villages we visited from time to time. Our social network was small, but intense.

As modes of transportation and communication improved, we began to spread out our networks. At this point, we knew more people, but we didn’t know all of them as well as when the group was smaller.

Not that long ago, in a world that became bigger and yet smaller, with people we know spread out all over it, it became harder and harder to maintain the depth of intensity to most of our relationships with others. Add to this the increase in the use of technology, and our busy schedules, and people started to feel isolated and distant.

Recognizing that community is essential to nearly all facets of our lives, this new use of the very technology that was keeping us apart started to spring up. Now, we are talking about social technologies and many of the same people who were lamenting that technology is isolating and marginalizing the human race are now pooh-poohing the social networking technologies that are bringing us back together. One could argue that this revitalizing of community through technology is actually better than way back when we lived in small villages.

If we tried to look at depth of relationship (a staple of community) on a chart, over time, the depth would be higher when the number of people in our circle was smaller and they were in a closer proximity. That line on the graph would curve downward over time as our contacts increased and were located farther apart, geographically. Now, that line is curving back up again because, even though we have much larger circles of contacts than every in history before, and they are spread farther out than ever in history, our depth of relationship with these contacts is more intense because a) it is easier to stay in touch thanks to the Internet and, b) we are grouping off with more people who have similar interests to our own.

So, to me, it seems all about community. Certainly, as a community (in all the senses that can be defined), we can accomplish so much more than a single individual can. I propose a goal for each of us. Think of all the “communities” you are a part of: parent, child, spouse/partner, sibling, co-worker, worshipper, neighbor, fan, chief cook, bottle washer, whatever…. look at all these communities and know that we each have the power to make those communities better. Do just a little bit each day to make your communities better and the world could not help but be a better place. And THIS is why I’m dedicating myself to the issue of community. Its time to talk about this, to try and make sense of it, but its also time to act.