In the second major wave of Internet passion, the commercial users phase (the first wave was driven by academic users, who resented the later commercial intruders), much was made of so-called “communities of interest”. These communities were global in nature, enabled by the wonders of modern communications, and held together by a common interest in, say, quilting, or Star Wars. Such collections of geographically-dispersed people lived in their own little cyberspace plots, and were said to be just as much “communities” as the more familiar “geo-communities” (where you and I live).
All of which was interesting, but served mainly to draw out the distinctions between “communities of interest” and geo-communities, and reinforce the notion that “real community” still had geographic roots, despite the rapid growth of such notions as the “cyberopolis” among the ranks of the technical cognoscenti.
The newly-renamed “face-to-face” (F2F) community (that’s the one where you and I live) was now of minor interest, the cutting-edge folks had moved on to the cyberspace community, the future resting space of humankind.
My feeling is that there is a great deal still to be learned about F2F communities, still mystery in the manner in which they form, cohere and persist.
And I have long believed that the finest and best use of the Internet is in strengthening local geo-communities.
I believed this so strongly that I “bet the farm” on a web-based system called "CivicChat" that was designed to connect communities and their councils, and to allow citizens to network within their geo-communities, and between geo-communities. (Unfortunately, I lost the farm).
I live in a neighbourhood where people spontaneously gather for Sunday drinks in the park, where the parents spontaneously organise a communal Easter egg hunt for their children, where pizza bake-offs in the park are held in Spring, where children move between houses as if they lived in all of them (which, indeed, they do). People tell me that you don’t find such community very much anymore, that we are lucky, that we inhabit a rare anomalous section of this otherwise alienated world.
Why is my neighbourhood like this? What are the elements, the drivers of its undoubted success? And how could the Internet add something to such a community?
The truth is, of course, that each of us is a member of multiple communities. It is the familiar old drawing from sociology texts, the “onion” of layers, family, community, country, world. We move out from our centre in more ways than one. While we maintain face-to-face contact with our geographic neighbours, we maintain e-mail contact with our more distant friends, and perhaps website contact with other communities in further-flung areas.
Over the “onion” we could draw the influence of the Internet, increasing as it moves out from the centre. The situation seems to be that the “Net” increases it usefulness as "social distance" increases. While such a tool may be marginally useful to geographic neighbours, it is obviously useful to those separated by six timezones, and there are gradations between.
I believe (still) that the Internet could be useful in linking citizens of a region to each other, and to their government(s), particularly their local government. There is some width to the "arrow of influence" at that remove, if not at the level of street-neighbours.