I recently attended Minicon 48 in Bloomington Minnesota. It was a wonderful weekend full of interesting discussions and reconnecting with old friends. I could go for the standard “Con Report” style blog post where I give you tidbits about my weekend, or I could go in depth over the course of several posts about the conversations that intrigued me the most. I’m going with the latter option.
Community in the Information Age (7:00pm Saturday)
Billed as a discussion about how the information age and social media has affected the formation of community within fandom. The actual panel was a bit different. For one thing, two of the panelists were admitted late adopters (one of them refused to use even list-serves) of online community. The others spoke to the ways that teenagers (both college age and high school age) use social media differently while admitting they were only observers at a distance.
That being said, the panel still provided plenty to think about.
The first thing is: “What is community?”
The panelists, as well as several active audience members all seemed to be working from differing definitions of community. I would have liked to have heard and up front discussion of what community means to each of the panelists rather than piece it together from what they were saying about the online communities (or not communities). One of the panelists insisted that you couldn’t have a community that was entirely online. Another was equally sure that on line communities were as vibrant as any that he was aware of in real life. That they shied away from defining community even at that point was a bit frustrating.
To me a community is a group of people brought together by a common interest or experience. A community can be a neighborhood, the people in a class together, people who all work in the same field, the people at a convention, etc. With that definition, a person can be a member of many communities with overlapping membership, some of which can be online. I will admit that my online presence isn’t as much as it could be. I don’t participate in Facebook, even in my writer persona, because in my interpreting persona I’ve seen too many people fired or otherwise harmed for silly things that happen on Facebook. Until I’m no longer in a position for those scenarios to happen to me, I will not be there. That is a choice I make and I know that it has consequences. I do however participate in Google+ and Twitter. G+ is a community in my mind – it is a place where people of common interest or experience can find each other and connect in a meaningful way. Not everyone uses it that way – in the same way that not everyone who goes to the corner bar is looking for community either. Twitter on the other hand is not a community. While I can connect with people there, there isn’t a cohesiveness that makes for community. All the people I have conversations with are people I met first somewhere else. The rest are just people who put out something interesting to catch my attention, but we haven’t gotten to know each other in any way, shape or form.
I also remember back to the dial-up BBS (bulletin board system) days of message boards, hosted on local phone lines, where one person at a time could be on, reading and leaving messages. They too were communities where you could meet other people with similar interests and get to know them. The ones I participated in had events in real life where we could meet for real. I met one of my roommates through that system. My mother (I was young) worried about the safety of meeting people that way, but she eventually realized that it was no worse than hanging out at bars looking for new and interesting people to connect with. So it wasn’t that much of a stretch for me to move to other forms of online connections as they developed. Such as email list serves – yet another form of community bringing together people with a shared interest such as “theatrical technology” or “gaslight stories” (two of the list-serves that I participated in – both now defunct). Then came blogging in various forms and social media as we now know it.
All of it comes with new perils as well as new thrills. Back in the day, you could only meet people that you could be in physical proximity to. It was very limiting, but also allowed you to fully participate in all your communities. The advent of the information age and all the various ways to be in communities introduces the problem of too much information. It is physically impossible to read everything all of your friends post online in any given day (unless you are a hermit with only two friends, even then it might be a problem). So you have to practice your own filtering. There are plenty of ways to do this, and many tools to help. Mostly I just read what I have time to and comment on the stuff that catches my attention. All my friends know to alert me if there is something they really want me to read. That includes the friends who I have never seen in real life. I keep a pretty tight reign on my online interactions, and an equally tight reign on my in person interactions – I don’t go out just because everyone else is. I take stock of my goals, my needs and those of my family. I decide just how much I want to be a part of any community and won’t be guilted into spending more time or effort just because other people have put more into that community. I know that I am rare in that regard.
Communities – especially the online ones – are great at giving the impression that everyone else is invested 100% and anything less means you are being left out. I doubt that’s true. Just because other people know about things that happened when you weren’t there doesn’t mean that they haven’t missed the group on other days. Take that corner bar I mentioned earlier. The group you hang with might meet there every night. If you choose to only go on Tuesdays you might think that you are on the outside of that community. However, a closer look will show that most of your group actually only shows up a couple of nights each week, but because some of them go everyday it feels like everyone has to be there. Not so much. The same is true online. Just because your friends see different things than you do, doesn’t mean they see more. Their filters are just a little different than yours. So you miss a few things, it’s not the end of the world.
Of course I could be wrong about that. Please tell me how you see communities and your investment in them. I’m interested in both online and real life experiences.