Sunday, April 10, 2005

Virtual Communities

I have become a big fan of TiVo, as some of my previous posts can attest. Of course, they have an online presence and an email newsletter. In the most recent newsletter there is mention of how Digital Video Recorders (DVR) are changing "water-cooler" chit-chat around the country. As the number of DVR users increase, there is a corresponding increase in the likelihood that one or more of those conversing has recorded the show for watching later. This is an obvious example that while technology brings down barriers to communication and creates the "global village", technology creates new interpersonal barriers. Maybe this just suggests a new technology is needed? Ah, yes, the ongoing search for technological solutions to problems created by technology. Like searching for new ways to deal with pollution. Maybe the Amish have it right: less technology = fewer problems. I'd still like to keeps my buttons, though.

I'm starting to get off track here, but if a technological solution presents itself (such as...oh, I don't know...blogging?), does this just maintain the new barrier or does this solution overcome the barrier? What I mean is that we've turned personal discussions with co-workers into impersonal online discussions with strangers, and if not strangers, at the very least we've created distance within the "discussion".

Let me get to the title of this post. By Virtual Community I don't mean one of the Sims computer games, and I don't necessarily mean Internet-based groups, although Internet friendships fit nicely within the concept. A year or two ago, while contemplating the church attendance of a friend and former coworker, I thought of the Parish system of the Catholic Church and its role within a community. It occurred to me that a person today probably belongs to more than one "community", particularly in a large city. Because of my Math Geek status, I started to think of Venn Diagrams. Do you remember Venn Diagrams? They're graphical representations of sets that may overlap (showing the intersection of the sets) and can be joined (the union of sets).

What really struck me was how disconnected I felt with the church I was attending. The friend and former coworker mentioned above attended another church in a different part of Chicago, and I was attending a church in Oak Park. It seemed a little odd, but neither of us was attending a church near where we lived. Essentially, our lives were segmented. There are distinct groups: a group of coworkers, a group of friends, a group of neighbors, and the church congregation. The intersection of these various groups was very small -- one or two people -- or nonexistent. These small, or empty, intersections led me to contemplate the Parish. Back in the day, the Parish was the center of a community. The intersection of the various groups was very high. If you lived in a Parish, your business connections, neighbors, friends and church congregations were all pretty much the same. The difficulty of travelling limited contacts for most people to those in a relatively close proximity. In the US today, the "relatively close" proximity is much greater than at any other time in history. I guess you could use available travel methods as a measure of community "closeness". As the time required to travel longer distances decreases, the result is even more virtual communities. We could maintain relationships over very long distances, and then not "need" to start new relationships with the people who happen to live close by. This is kind of the phenomenon in a large city. My friends are all over the city, 15-30 miles away.

Anyway, the main point was that we create and maintain these virtual communities that are almost arbitrarily defined: high school friendships, a coworker from a job five years earlier, etc. Now I'm wondering if these virtual communities are both a blessing and a curse.

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