Is Online Community Real?

A sermon by Margy Levine Young, delivered at First Parish Lexington UU, October 1994

On-line community? How can there be a community whose members have never seen each other or heard each others’ voices? And how can community happen through the cold, hard medium of computers and networks? Impossible — the on-line community must consist of hopelessly geeky computer nerds exchanging technical information and longing for real human contact, staring all day at a screen full of glowing letters and a blinking cursor.

There’s the stereotype. I won’t ask for a show of hands of how many people agree with what I just said. I’m sure that there are lots of asocial nerds out there for whom the on-line community serves as their only social outlet. But that’s not the end of the story.

On-line communication, through mechanisms like the Internet, allows something else to happen — something that attracts people other than the nerds of the world. Individuals all over the country — no, all over the world — can find folks with similar interests and share experiences and thoughts. In the real world — that is, in the world of regular communication — it can be hard to find people with the same interests as yourself, especially if your interests are a little to one side of the beaten track. Are you a dedicated grower of rare orchids? An amateur cellist? A parent who is homeschooling two kids? How many other people are there in Lexington to talk to about these things? And even if there were some, how would you find them?

On-line, you’re not limited to Lexington, or even Massachusetts, or even the U.S. You can find a group — known in Internet jargon as a mailing list or a newsgroup — that talks about nothing but your specific interest. It can be quite amazing to find an ongoing discussion about something that you thought you were the only person in the world who cared about.

These subjects can be very personal. For example, we have a friend with a sexual orientation that is a bit outside the norm — not sick or unsafe, just unusual. She thought she was alone in the world. We found a group that talked about sexual matters and asked about her specific interest. Actually, there are a number of such groups on the Internet, and they are gaining noteriety because they are places that people can talk about things that are normally out of bounds in “polite” conversation.  Some are serious support groups, some are more like an electronic version of a singles bar, and some do a little of each. Needless to say, in this case we stuck to the more support-oriented groups.

We got several responses, which we passed along to our friend. She was amazed and gratified to find like-minded folks out there. She’ll probably never meet them — I have no idea where they live — but she can talk to them — correspond with them — electronically.  Being able to talk to somebody about your deep dark secret, without having to reveal who you are or where you live, can be very liberating.  Our friend found that it helped her enormously.

Obviously, the on-line community can never replace face-to-face, hands-on, hold-the-baby-for-awhile, come-on-over-for-pizza community. But it dovetails with it nicely, filling in the gaps where our “live” community falls down. Many people across America have been finding the various Unitarian-Universalist groups — there are least four of them. People who though that they were alone with their liberal faith have connected to UUs and found that perhaps they are UUs too! Some have started attending UU churches. Others live hundreds of miles from the nearest UU church, and use the on-line Unitarian community as their congregation.

Many people have commented that on-line communications have sparked a revival in the art of letter-writing. Not since the 19th century have so many people met and become friends without ever meeting each other face to face. And while electronic mail is different from letter-writing, the process of transforming thoughts into the written word is very much the same.

On-line community? Yes, there most certainly is such a thing. It’s as different from regular community as a modern multinational corporation is from a 16th century artisan’s workshop. Just as the corporation did not eliminate the workshop, the on-line community will not eliminate the need for the physical communities we build now.  But it will do things that physical communities can’t do, and it will only do it for you if you sign up. As learning to read 300 years ago enabled people to use the post office to communicate, as families needed to sign up for and pay for a telephone when it was a novelty, those of us who come to this communications medium early will help define what it looks like for the future.

And just as there were obstacles to using the post office (can you imagine teaching everyone to read?!) and obstacles to universal telephone service (stringing wires to every house in America?!), there are obstacles to electronic communication — signing up, learning to use the computer, and learning what is now called netiquette (yes, there are rules for being polite in the electronic world).  But in the long view, those obstacles will seem trivial, and electronic communication will be a part of our lives we take for granted. So join the parade now, or play catch-up later! Besides, there’s already lots of interesting stuff out there. But that’s a whole ‘nother thing.

Read more by Margy Levine Young