When you live in cyberspace can you find real community? Does having with a network of friends online amount to the same thing as a network of friends in real life?
For the last few years I have been puzzling over these thoughts. I have been wondering if my family’s social life has become too virtual. I was arguably the first. Back in the mid 1980s my Commodore 64 was hardly warm before I had purchased a 300-baud modem and was discovering electronic bulletin board systems (BBSes). It quickly became my favorite hobby. At first I was online to download software. But gradually I found discussion boards. I found connecting with people online fascinating. Suddenly my community expanded beyond family, established friends and immediate neighbors into a much larger and diverse set of people, many of whom seemed far more interesting than the people I bumped into in real life.
Back then the Internet was virtually unknown and certainly not available to the average person. Its closest equivalent in the mid 1980s was an online service called Compuserve. Unable to afford a service I found instead lists of local electronic BBSes put together by a man named Mike Focke and started dialing. When I got an IBM compatible computer I graduated to the much larger world of IBM compatible BBSes. While chatting on line with other people from the Washington area I started to care about silly things like whether PCBoard software was better than Wildcat software. One nice thing about BBSes though was they were local. Most of us were too cheap to pay long distance charges to chat electronically with people. So after some initial shyness I got a chance to actually meet some of the people I met online. To this day I maintain a core set of friends from those days including Frank Pierce, Angela Smith and Jim Goldbloom.
But those BBS days are gone for good. The Internet arrived in the home. The location of people on the other end of a conversation became irrelevant. This was both good and bad. I missed those BBS get togethers we had every 3 to 6 months, usually with the online gang from The Back of the North Wind BBS. I still hung out online but it wasn’t quite the thrill it had been. The BBS world slowly died out and in 1999 even the venerable The Back of the North Wind BBS shut down after 12 years of nearly continual service.
For my wife the Internet was a way to connect with people of a very narrow interest that she would never have met otherwise. Around 1999 she jumped into the homoerotic fan fiction (Slash) universe big time. She has been happy in that community ever since. She considers her online friends just her friends. While a handful live locally most are distant. And yet we have met many of them. On our recent trip to Canada we visited one of her friends in every city we visited. She’s very tight with her online friends and her world is certainly richer as a result. And while she has shared intimacies with people who in some cases live as far away as Australia we don’t know most of our neighbors. We know some of them because our daughter went to school with their children. We know our next-door neighbor but not the one on the other side. Those neighbors I haven’t met might as well be on the other side of the world. They don’t seem interested in me and I haven’t sought them out either. We are unlikely to interact at anything more than a superficial level.
My daughter’s friends are mostly people she knows from school or through Girl Scouts. They meet in person from time to time but spend much more time interacting in cyberspace. In that sense she is a wholly modern ordinary teenager. Instant messaging is her primary means of communicating with friends. When she gets phone calls it is often from a friend explaining why they can’t get online. And yet even she has her virtual friends out there who will likely always remain anonymous.
I sometimes feel hypocritical and tempted to declare that this sort of online life is unnatural and wrong. Yet it is not without its allures and benefits. For me in the 1980s and 1990s it was a godsend. It gave me a sort of a social life without leaving home. We had something of a social life in those days but it involved around our daughter and her friends. Through her friends we met her friends’ parents and sometimes we found things in common. But they were rarely meaningful relationships. The reality of those times was that they were packed with parenting chores. The computer offered brief escapes into a world populated with adults. There I could talk about things I cared about like politics at my convenience. No one wanted me to read the The Very Hungry Caterpillar at all! And I could do all this without leaving home. It felt good. I felt optimized.
This new way of making and meeting friends and lovers may be the way it will be from now on. Yet something in me still yearns for the traditional sense of community that I have largely spurned. So this year when my local Unitarian Church once again made the appeal for people to join covenant groups I decided it was finally time to try it.
A covenant group is a group of people who agree to meet regularly to talk. I asked our minister to assign me to a random group. I was hoping I might get into a group with people around my own age. But it seems in our church that covenant groups are largely full of people age fifty plus. Perhaps most people my age are too busy with the childrearing chores to attend covenant group meetings.
Yesterday I attended my first meeting. I actually know most of the people in my covenant group. I know them in the sense that I recognize their faces from services. Some of them I know by name because I have talked to them a few times. But I have largely not really talked to any of them. A covenant group provided a structured way for me to get to know them as people.
This particular group has been around for a year or so, but there were a few vacancies. I and another lady filled the vacancies. We met in a room in the basement of the church for about an hour and a half. We introduced ourselves. Since I was new I gave them a short biography, both professional and personal. And I unloaded on my problems of the moment: my ailing mother and my wife’s imminent job loss. And I learned about some of their issues and struggles.
Every meeting has a discussion topic chosen by the group. Yesterday’s topic was how we got to where we are with our religious convictions. Being Unitarian Universalists a lot of us didn’t have religious convictions. I heard more than a couple in my group confess to being spiritually vacant and left-brain dominant. There were more than a few ex-Catholics like me in our circle too. I confessed that while I spent much of my adulthood as an agnostic it didn’t quite fit anymore. In that sense I felt more spiritual than many of the rest of them.
Despite being the youngest in my group it was still an enjoyable experience. We may all be white middle class people but we are a fairly eclectic and interesting bunch. Our group includes a physician, a man working for the State Department, the manager of a childcare center and a number of retired people.
So although I have a busy life I have covenanted to spend one night a month for a year with these people. I am there to get to know them at something beyond a surface level. In the process hopefully they will get to know more than a little something about me. I have heard of covenant groups that blossom into tightly knit friendship circles. Only time will tell if that will happen with our group. But everyone in my group seemed to be nice, decent yet complex people struggling through their lives and their issues. Perhaps in some small way we will find an old fashioned sense of community. Perhaps in time I will grow to find more of my friends in my community and fewer online.
(However, if you would like to join an online community you are welcome to join my forum, The Potomac Tavern. We prefer members from the Washington DC area since many of us started online in the days of electronic BBSes, but it really doesn’t matter. You’ll find us a small but chatty bunch, sort of a virtual covenant group!)