Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

The communities all around us

Posted by shannonclark on August 6, 2008

In less than 10 minutes walking from my house are nearly a countless number of different communities, throughout the greater San Francisco and Bay Area there are thousands, probably millions more.

I have been thinking about the communities to which I belong, the communities all around me, and the online and offline implications of these communities, our changing notion of identity, and on a more personal level what all this means to what I’ll do next weekend or more long term how my life is and will be changing in the future.

In a conversation with friends a few weeks ago (and some blog posts) I noted that many people here in SF seem to be defined by a single, dominant community to which they belong – whether by virtue of sexual orientation, sexual practice/preferences, or active participation in an arts community such as Burning Man. In the Mission there are “hipsters”, down the Peninsula in Silicon Valley some are yet another part of the tech world and all around the Bay Area there are other communities – hippies (aging or youthful) in Haight-Ashbury and across the bay in Berkeley etc.

But as I was walking home from getting a late night dinner a few nights ago I started looking around my neighborhood and realized that there are literally 100’s if not 1000’s of communities just in the blocks around my house, in the businesses (and churches) and amongst the apartments and homes. Some are small communities, others are very large, many people indeed most people belong to many different communities but often will define themselves via just a few or perhaps just one.

What do I mean by “community”?

In this context I’m thinking of community as a group to which you belong, an association of people though that is clearly still very vague. Perhaps simplest is a group where people know you and very likely would help you (or you help them) because of your mutual membership in the community. Now this is not entirely complete, there are plenty of people in any given community who are clearly members of that community but who may not know each other and may not help each other if asked, but most broadly a community are people to whom you can turn to – whether for something as simple as a smile and a hello or as complex as help in a time of crisis.

A few examples of communities scattered around my neighborhood on just one street upon which I walk frequently.

  • At the bottom of the hill a large Catholic church and school. Multiple overlapping communities here – the parishoners who attend the Church and the parents, students and staff who go to the school
  • Among my neighbors on the way down the hill I see political signs (here in San Francisco primarily Obama window signs like the one in my own window) as well as flags to proclaim other associations, here in San Francisco lots of rainbow flags generally as a sign of Gay or Lesbian identity.
  • Also at the bottom of the hill are a number of restaurants and shops around each of which to a lesser or greater degree a small community has sprung up. In all cases a community of the workers of the store, but also in many cases the regular customers of the business form communities of a sort bonding with each other and with the owners and staff through frequent visits and conversations.
  • a bit further down the hill there is an Orthodox Jewish center, during high holidays I have seen it busy, many evenings I may see a small group (usually of men) inside in what I assume is Torah study. It stands out a bit in contrast to the mostly Hispanic rest of the surrounding blocks.
  • across from the Jewish center is one of the many legal marijuana dispensaries in San Francisco, I assume a community of a sort gathers there as well
  • also in my neighborhood are yoga studios, beauty salons, therapist offices, art galleries, day care centers, veterinarians, midwifes, and countless other small businesses. Around each one ore more small communities likely has formed, people who in many cases live nearby and bond with each other over shared practices, hobbies, children, religion, or other common interests.

And outside of this very local scale of relationships and communities people in most cases are also part of one or more work communities, of the extended community around schools they have attended (and/or which their children attend) and on a bigger scale still people come together around a shared support for a professional sports team (and more broadly for a shared passion for one or more speciic sports).

But why observe all this? Why take stock of the many communities around us?

Because as I started to do this I realized a couple of pretty vital things.

  1. Without intentionally meaning to I am not, in fact, part of many of these communities at all.
  2. Most of the communities people are a part of have little correspondence with anything “online” the seeming overlaps are, in fact, a different, perhaps related community
  3. All communities on or offline succeed and add value to your life in relationship to your own involvement, your awareness of them (sure a smile from the woman behind the counter is nice, better though is getting to know her by name)
  4. While there are some communities created around facts of the people involved (skin color, sexual preference, school you attended) the most meaningful are around not a noun or adjective but around verbs – around what you (the members) do. Knowing how to play chess doesn’t make you a member of a local chess playing community – playing chess with your fellow players who gather at North Ave Beach in Chicago (and in nearby cafes in the wintertime) makes you a member of that community.
  5. The communities I perceive myself as a member of very likely do not or at least not fully overlap with the communities others perceive me as a member of. And what matters most in a community is not whether you think you are a member but whether the other members of that community agree that you are – i.e. if they perceive you as a fellow member. Even in the small, adhoc communities around the businesses in my neighborhood there are these differences. I may be a semi-regular in a cafe but if I don’t take the time to get to know the staff, the owner, the other regulars then though I may be recognized as someone who has been there before, in a very real sense I am not a member of the community.

When I first got online, in 1991, I was an active member of a number of online communities. very real communities which had a more than just online impact on my life. In the two largest cases as a result of these communities I offered friends whom I had only met online a place to stay, got together with many of them in person (with many people traveling long distances for these gatherings) and many other members of these communities formed even more permanent and lasting relationships (and yes some marriages). Musual membership in an online USENET discussion board (open to anyone but the community was formed of those who participated even if just mostly as readers) or of the players of an online game rapidly expanded to a level of trust that allowed people to open up their homes to each other when travelling, to offer “real world” assistance when needed, in short to be there for each other when the need arose. All as a result of the ongoing and active and reinforcing trust built up via online participation and engagement.

In many cases this did not, in fact, at that time (1991-1994 or so) require people to post and participate entirely as their real world selves. Indeed some of the most important members of the community of one online game which I helped run refused to reveal to anyone his or her gender (instead preferring to have a gender neutral identity even while also active in relationships with others in the game). And though merely having online access in the early 90’s meant that we all shared some common traits (technical knowledge, access usually via a university) we were quite a diverse community – with people from many different generations, of many different gender and sexual identities, of quite different professional interests, and indeed very different religious and political views.

Taking stock, however, of the communities which I feel an active part of today online I see a diminution of this diversity. In many cases these are groups of people who overlap in many many ways. Sure we may all use a given technology (twitter/friendfeed for example) but in many cases we also work in the same industries, many of us are of similar ethinic backgrounds, hold relatively similar political views and in short overlap in many many ways.

I find this very unfortunate though I suspect it is a difficult trend to reverse the group forming tools online today almost always presuppose a shared engagement with one or more specific technologies/sites (Facebook vs MySpace vs Orcut vs Bebe vs Hi5 vs Topix vs Yahoo Groups etc) so the people who share your interest who also find and then participate in the same online “community” tend to overlap not only around that interest but also around a whole range of other shared traits which led them, like you, to choose the same tools and online homes.

There are some minor exceptions – communities which are online but not formed as part of another site or service but as a standalone site. In many of these cases they may attract a somewhat more diverse group of members – but only to the extent that there are both not many other alternative venues for those interests and that people from many different backgrounds are all looking for such a community.

I will be writing more on this subject in the future. Full disclosure, among the publisher clients of my advertising network, Nearness Function, is a large online network of standalone communities mostly clustered around a shared passion for a particular type of consumer electronics.

One Response to “The communities all around us”

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