I’ve been thinking a lot about virtual (or electronic) community recently. A few years back, there was a lot of talk about how internet communities weren’t “real” community. People of the older schools of thought were saying that they didn’t fulfill the same functions, and I’ve generally agreed with them. Until recently.
Increasingly, I’m changing my mind. While I still think an in-person component is useful, I do not see it as essential to true community. I’m seeing electronic means of communications forming a stronger and stronger basis of community.
The Portland Tech community is largely built around Twitter. Twitter allows people to communicate in short messsages of up to 140 characters. It is more like a bulletin board than an email. The Portland tech community tends to use it for everything from ongoing conversations about projects (“I need a Java programmer for a quick project” or “Anyone know how to make a Mac work in Swahili?”) to quick statements that are more about connecting than conveying any information (“Can’t believe it’s still not Friday”; “Madness! Ahhhhhh!”). Our connections through Twitter mean that we know each other far better than we would if we just relied on meeting face to face. It means that by the time I meet someone face to face, I may well have had several “conversations” with them, and at the very least, I’ve heard what they have to say, and they’ve heard what I have to say. We have an existing connection before we meet in person.
The traditionalists would say, “ah, but that’s not ‘real community.’ It doesn’t fulfill the social needs or create the tightness of bonds.” I now can disagree.
This week was my birthday. I think about three people wished me a happy birthday in person that day (it may have been slightly higher). What I remember about being wished a happy birthday are the 30 or so who wished me a happy birthday through Twitter and Facebook. Those greetings made me feel warm and fuzzy and loved. One of the true measures of community is its ability to create an emotional impact on you, and to celebrate life’s milestones in a meaningful way with you. This community did that.
I have moved off the fence. I am now firmly in the camp of those who feel like virtual communities can be as real as face-to-face communities. And I am reveling in how large and wonderful those communities can be.