Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Digital Community

Like many people, I had thought for years that a community of people required individuals to be in some form of physical proximity to one another. We could have acquaintances and we could know other people, but my limited definition rested on a quaint and antiquated notion that being friends with someone or being a member of a community meant that we actually saw other people physically and we spoke either face to face or on the phone with other members of our community. However, like others, I have had to redefine my concept of community in our digital age.

As I have grappled with the notion of what defines a community in today's digitally connected world, I have found the term to be more and more difficult to define. I remember years ago when a friend shared the story of his 12 year old son who considered one of his closest friends to be a child in Sweden with whom he played on line games but who he had never "seen" and with whom he had never "spoken." This didn't sound like a close friend to me, but his son thought of this child from another country as one of his closest companions.

In a fascinating lecture at the Library of Congress, Michael Wesch, professor at Kansas State, offers An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube that has made me question even more the definition of community in today's world. At one point in his talk, Wesch quotes Harvard Professor Robert Putnam's influential book Bowling Alone from 1995 where Putnam bemoans the loss of community in America and says that an electronic community will be unable to replace what we are missing in our lives.

However, in this extremely thought-provoking speech replete with many You Tube videos, Wesch argues that there is a rapidly emerging community on YouTube that has different mores and customs than the type of community to which we might be accustomed but it is no less valid. Wesch argues that the user-generated nature of the content on YouTube enables all of us to be individuals within a community where we are known and included. In fact, it is the ability of people to share their unmediated selves that enables this community to be so honest and so "real."

This community is not without its own drama, as Wesch shows, and there is an anonymity that allows people to say things that they would never say to another human being. Nevertheless, as Wesch argues, it is this kind of honesty that characterizes the YouTube community as people share their true feelings in ways they could not do so were they physically in front of other people.

Whether we buy into the development of this YouTube community is to some extent irrelevant. Just as Thomas Friedman argues that the world is flat whether we like it or not, Wesch proposes that this community is here and it is serving a purpose. As educators and as parents, we must wrestle with the ramifications of this new type of community, and we ignore it at our own peril.

I remember several years ago when we proposed to Crossroads College Prep students the idea of having a school wide blog and their response was one of incredulity. I was heartened to hear them say that we should never be a place where students would say things to each other on line that they would not say to people in school. I was proud of their response, and I hope our students always feel this way. However, we must realize that students now live in a variety of communities and they may not see them as either disconnected or mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact, our job may be to help them navigate the different communities in which they live and understand the ever changing customs of each of their communities, the virtual as well as the real.