Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Communities, tribes, friendship and the Net.

Communities. Tribes.  There is much discussion about these, both online and in the traditional media - many of the latter being very disparaging about those who spend much time on online social media, implying that they are some kind of social misfits, who can't make friends in the normal way.  This is out-and-out bigotry. 

Online, in particular, there is much talk of 'Tribes', and the modern use of the word is not so different from the original, meaning a group of people bonded through common interest.  That common interest may, originally, have been basic survival, but that's not to say that it is no longer so, in a more amorphous sense.  With the explosion of human beings on this planet, small, village-style communities have become rare in the developed countries - physically, they still exist, but the inter-dependant  survival mechanism no longer functions in the same way, as we have become so much more mobile, we can go elsewhere to meet our needs.  Thus we have lost village shops and pubs, and even the church, once the heart of communities of this sort, no longer has such a hold on our identities.

However, humans are communal creatures, we were once prey animals, deep in our past, and survived and became strong by working together for mutual benefit, and by adapting to changing circumstances not just as individuals, but as groups.  Those who were not part of a community of some sort were always more vulnerable, not just physically, but mentally.  Put simplistically, if we don't share our map of reality with others, it becomes more and more distorted until  we become mad.  We need to compare our picture of the way things are with others' pictures, to learn from others' experience and adjust our picture accordingly.

With the density of population, and the increasing variety of experience, finding commonality with those physically accessible becomes harder, the denser the population, the more likely isolation becomes - and with it, distorted pictures of reality.  Throw in physical disability to the equation, increasing the likelihood of isolation, and the web becomes a vital lifeline. 

I spent many lonely years, surrounded by people and responsibilities, but with no one I felt commonality with, and the strain didn't do my sanity any good!  It's a cliche that the loneliest place is in a crowd, but the truth of it should not be ignored.  We need to recognise the vulnerability of the lonely, and be grateful for the doors that the net can open.  I have been on Facebook now for about 3 - 4 years, and I was very nervous about it at first, with all the prejudices that ignorance produces!  It took me many years to overcome my technophobia, and like many converts, I am now a technophile! (though still a very ignorant one, but now the search for understanding is exciting, rather than scary)

Facebook, and more recently Twitter, have enabled me to reach new communities and new tribes.  I am no longer lonely, so long as I have my Macbook and an internet connection.  This doesn't mean I have no friends that I interact with physically - quite the reverse, the net has helped me keep in touch with people I might have lost touch with as our lives have taken us far apart, physically.  Of my 4 children, only one is physically close, so Facebook, in particular, has become a vital tool in maintaining contact - and even in improving our relationships, in some ways, as we have never been brilliant at writing letters, or picking up the phone!  Messages on Facebook can be read, and answered, at a time convenient to the recipient, which may not be a good time for the person who wants to communicate initially, and contact is easy to keep up with acquaintances through their status messages.  This is not a 'puff' for Facebook, but a recognition of the value of online social networks.  Many of my generation are afraid of such things - their lives are poorer, and they are lonelier for their fear and prejudice.

This is not to turn a blind eye to the risks posed by unwary social networking - but are they really any worse than those of face-to-face relationships?  We hear about terrible online scams - are they any worse than 'cowboy' builders, or the con artists who fleece old people of their savings going from door to door?  Of course they aren't, you have to be a bit streetwise, whether that's a bricks-and-mortar street, or the information superhighway!  The Net is a very sophisticated tool, and is as useful, or dangerous, as the skills of the person using it, just like any other tool.  Would we throw out hammers because someone could use them to batter people to death?! Or even castigate them as dangerous, to be tightly controlled?  I think that's paranoia. 

If you're reading this, you're obviously a net user, what's your experience of online friendship, tribes and communities? How do they compare to your physical ones? Does one lead into the other? Can you help other, less technologically comfortable, people find their online tribes and communities?