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ATPM 8.09
September 2002



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The Candy Apple

by Ellyn Ritterskamp,

Home Is Where the Heart Is

This month I want us to think about the nature of community, especially cyber communities. There are ways in which online communities are like real-life groups and ways in which they are very different. Some of us, in fact, spend more time and energy in online villages than we do in real-life communities, and it’s worth thinking about the pros and cons of this lifestyle.

I’m a member of two online communities. One is the staff community of this e-zine. We are linked by group e-mails and occasional private e-mails. Sometimes, several members of the staff converse over several days about various topics, most of which are Macintosh- or computing-related. Once such a discussion gets down to only two interested parties, we usually take the conversation to individual e-mail, to spare the rest of the staffers from having to read stuff they’re not interested in. There’s also a bandwidth issue; not everyone cares to download a bunch of messages they already know they won’t read. In this group, for instance, once the topic turns to anything about programming or writing code, I know I don’t need to bother because I won’t understand it. Half our staff, though, thinks that stuff is fascinating and can chat about it all the time. That’s why they’re good at what they do— they Get It.

So, in order to be courteous to everyone on the list, it’s important to put some sort of informative subject title in the header. So if I see an e-mail from a staffer that says, “OS X Griddits and Friddistats,” I know I don’t need to even open it. That’s easy. That’s just courtesy we’ve all learned to extend to each other. We’ve also worked out a way to alert each other of non-computing topics. We just put “OT” at the beginning of the subject line, for Off Topic. That way, if three or four people want to send notes about a movie they’ve seen recently, they can. Mostly they don’t, because members of this staff are also members of other communities where such conversations feel more congenial. But if we want to talk about what we got for a birthday present or something, we just call it “OT: New Bike for My Birthday.” Those who want to read it, read it, and those who don’t, don’t.

So this community of ATPM staffers is one with a clear common goal: we’re here to learn and teach about Macs, Apple, and computing, and to put out an e-zine every month. That gives us a fairly specific focus, and the nature of our community is shaped by that focus. In some (good) ways it feels like a corporate work environment, even though we’re all volunteers.

The Tavern Analogy

The other online community of which I’m a member is very different from the one at ATPM. It includes maybe 150 active members who make about 800 posts a day to a message board. Of those 150 active members, perhaps 40 do much of the posting, with the others making more occasional posts. This online community feels more like a real neighborhood or, as one member put it a few months ago, like a tavern. You wander in for the evening, make small talk with the person next to you, and either stick around for a long talk or leave early. Whatever you want.

There are some people you like and some you don’t like. That’s the way life is. That’s the way the tavern is. You figure out which ones make you crazy and you don’t talk to them. The great thing about having so many people in the group is that you’re bound to find someone you like. Several someones, even.

The corollary to this is that when you make a friend online, unless you’re being deceived (more on that later), you’re somehow getting to know the real person in ways that aren’t as easy in real life. It’s true that we give up the ability to read body language and to see people’s winks and smiles, but over time, a person’s words usually present a very clear picture of what’s important to them. You get to know the deep-down stuff and not just the superficialities of appearance. I have one online friend I know better from a year or so of exchanges than many people I know in real life. I like her better than some of them and I’ve never spoken to her or even seen her picture. I have no idea what she looks like, but that’s part of the fun. I’m connecting with a real person and not just whatever role she has to play in society.

The same goes for lots of other members of this group. Sure, sometimes we play roles of joke tellers, or quiz masters, or dirty old men, or whatever, but over time, the genuineness of good people shines through. We all gravitated toward this message board because we’re fans of a particular television show, but when that show wasn’t renewed, many of us remained with the group. We couldn’t just walk away from months and years of hanging out with each other.

Now we get pregnancy updates, and people post pictures of their babies and pets. We celebrate when someone gets a new job, and grieve with them when they suffer personal losses. These relationships have required as much energy to nurture as any flesh-and-blood relationships.

This makes it just as tough when something goes sour. We all post under anonymous handles, and sometimes to have fun, people create additional handles to play with. Once in a while the extra layer of anonymity tempts people to say things they don’t want to say “as themselves,” and the play gets out of hand. Something like that happened in our group a while back, and recently someone figured out who it was, and that a third person had helped cover it up.

There have been a few awkward days of revelations, and some tiptoeing around while people figured out how to reattach themselves to this suddenly more fragile community. It’s been this process that got me started thinking about how and why our online society is like and not like our real-life society.

For the most part, in contemporary America we’re allowed to choose which groups we want to be part of. We can be leaders in one group, followers in another, and only casual participants in others. Schools, churches, work groups, sports-themed groups, dance clubs, whatever. We enter and leave groups as we like. John Dewey said something important about our ability to move among groups, but I can’t remember the exact context. He probably thought it was what separated us from other species, and I mean that in a good way.

So just like a neighborhood group, my online community dealt with its little transgressors. The responsible parties stood up and apologized for their actions and took responsibility for them. Most everyone involved had begun with good intentions, so a little time will take care of any leftover wounds. Everyone had the courage to own their actions and to answer as best they could why they had done what they did. The rest of us kept in mind that the sense of community we gain from each far outweighs any temporary hiccups along the way. And after all the hemming and hawing, accusations and mediations, it made sense to say…


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