Craigslist and outdoor markets both form communities, but in very different ways. Many would argue that a physical community will always be stronger than a virtual one, but even the biggest fear-mongers for the evils of technology admit to a certain cohesion that forms online.
Robert Putnam is famous for arguing that technology is eroding society. In a review of Craigslist, however, he opens up the definition of community to something that can be meaningful–even when when entirely virtual. The paper ends with a quote from Craig Newmark:
People started telling me that they felt connected in some kind of community
sense. I used to be doctrinaire about definitions and I didn’t feel it was
a community site, but I eventually said, if people feel connected, it must be
So how does your definition of community change when all the interaction is online?
I had a recent experience that made me think of community in a new way. I was eating breakfast with my sister, her family, my husband and my in-laws at a popular outdoor market in my neighborhood when my husband got a call on his cell phone. “Do you have a white dog with black spots?” Our stomachs flipped as we ran over to the place where we had tied our dog. She had snapped the metal clasp on her leash and attacked another dog in this very busy outdoor farmer’s market. One woman had broken up the fight and had blood on her hand. Completely oblivious, our dog was lying on her back, wagging her tail as two policemen and a crowd of people surrounded her.
As I spoke with the policemen and the woman who had broken up the fight, different people from the market came up to me, incredibly upset at my dog and wishing horrible things on her. Other people put their arms around me and responded to the people who were yelling. All of these people were complete strangers. But they were also members of my neighborhood “community.”
In all, everything worked out ok. No dog or person was hurt, the policemen moved on and so did we.
But it left me with a tangible sense of this word “community” that we hear so much about. When people care so much about their neighborhood that they will yell at a stranger for violating the peace, that makes a community. When others strangers will comfort each other and speak for someone they think is getting the short end of the stick that does feel like community.
Does this type of community form online?
Much of what I have observed online is like-minded individuals forming online communities. The backlash for those who express alternate opinions is often biting. People can be very harsh online.
Additionally, it’s much easier to skip out of an online community, than a real one.
That said, Craigslist truly does form a community of diverse individuals after a common goal. Without Craigslist, my house would be sparsely furnished. And I would never have met as many people in my neighborhood without it.
So what do you think? Can the word community be used in the same way for the organization online and your physical neighborhood?
What does “community” mean to you?