During my Permaculture Design course last weekend, we had a unit on community design and structure.  As part of the unit, our instructors had us break out into one-on-one discussions with our classmates about our definitions of community, what communities we’re involved in, and what ones we’d like to be involved in.  And as I’ve recently started up a Facebook profile again, the topic of ‘virtual’ or ‘digital’ communities came up pretty much right away.

I like this.

I’ve historically had a love/hate relationship with social media, especially Facebook.  At times they’ve made me feel very connected to people and issues I care about; at other times, they seemed to deepen my sense of loneliness and disconnection.  I can remember almost exactly a year ago, having just moved out to Colorado away from pretty much everybody I cared about and who cared about me, and feeling quite alone.  I would go on Facebook to see what my friends and family were up to, and maybe trade comments and messages, but more than anything it just showed me what I was missing.  On the other hand, once I started to meet people and find organizations and events that resonated with me, I was able to engage with those events and groups, because they were all on Facebook.

My classmate J____’s definition of community centered around life and growth; mine centered around connectedness and interaction.  Another definition talked about vulnerability and genuineness.  And an instructor’s definition was simply ‘a group of people who need each other.’  These all made sense in light of many of the communities I’d listed – friends, family, classmates, coworkers, fellow Permaculturalists and farmers, and fellow writers.  But not in the virtual ones I listed – Facebook, Twitter, WordPress.

I realized that those are not actual communities.  I would even go so far as to say there can be no real ‘online’ community.  Facebook is not my community.

I’ve heard the argument that these sorts of online platforms are a 21st-century version of a ‘third place’, or a gathering place outside of work and home such as a mosque, coffee shop, bowling alley, grange hall, and so forth.  But I think that’s a false equivalent – with those gathering spaces, there is a shared responsibility simply because of the shared space.  There is also an accountability- for example, yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded church could cause you to get caught up in the stampede.  But yelling ‘fire’ online has no real consequences whatsoever.  You see this all the time in comments sections; things that would get one expelled, beat up, ostracized, arrested, or just looked down upon if spoken in real life come up all the time.

So I think instead that these online platforms are not communities in and of themselves, but merely one tool of many by which to interact with our communities.  Facebook and Twitter are more like big conference calls than town halls.  I may have a conference call with my classmates, or colleagues, but I wouldn’t say they’re my ‘conference call community.’  In the same way, online platforms are simply a medium of interaction.  Nothing more.

We’re so new to these online platforms.  Facebook has been around for just a little more than a decade.  In terms of the timescales of human civilization, us using Facebook is like an eight-year-old who’s two weeks into piano lessons: she knows what a piano is, and basically how it works, but has no idea how to really use it properly.  Right now a lot of us are using these things as a substitute for or veneer of community (not to mention profiles as a substitute for or veneer of identity).  And companies and organizations are using that veneer to sell us things too, and since we’re in an economic-demand-driven culture, in general we’re not questioning these uses.

Well, some of us are.  I’ve had conversations with several people I’m in actual community with about this recently, and they’ve all had similar misgivings about using ‘social’ media.  They’ve expressed desires to quit, or to drastically cut back their virtual connections, but also feel misgivings about that.  With so much use of these things in our culture and communities, there’s a lot of pressure to engage with them on the terms of the culture.

But if it’s just a tool, and not actually a community or identity, then that pressure’s off.  Even carpenters don’t carry hammers around all the time, or worry constantly about what their hammers look like.  So let’s stop worrying so much about these tools, and instead start figuring out ways to use them which actually connect us to each other.  That, or just put them down altogether.  That’s okay too.