21st Century Community

peasant-gatheringSo I have a theory. It’s a theory about people in the 21st century and what we think normal is, a theory about how the internet has changed all that. I’m interested in opinions about this theory.

A few months back, I taught a writing class at my church. I intend to teach a lot of writing classes in the future, so I figured I’d start by presenting the class to the least hostile group I could find (because I was bound to suck at it my first time through, and I did). The thing is, in spite of advertising, in spite of the fact that I am known to be a published author within my church, only one person ended up signing up for the class. Granted, we had a great time, and several other people had expressed interest in the class or came up to me afterwards wishing they could have taken it. But for that time through, just one person.

The thing is, I’m not the only one. Another craftsperson taught a very cool felting class back in the summer, and I’m currently in a small quilting class. And by small I mean there are two students and one teacher. The thing is, it’s not just classes offered at my church. I’ve been polling people a bit lately, and it seems like participation is down all over: classes, community theater shows, pick-up sports leagues, everywhere.

So what can be the cause of this sudden lack of participation?

I feel like I stumbled across the answer accidentally when I was researching 19th century church communities and the rise of the evangelical movement, particularly in the Old West. See, back then, church was a major event in the lives of pioneers, because it was one of the only times that they had to get away from their farms and their families and to be around neighbors. It was their chance to see that they were not alone in the world, that they were part of something greater.

When I was a kid, I felt like we had something like that. On my block, all of the neighborhood kids would get together after school or in the summer to organize epic games of tag or capture the flag, or just to ride our bikes up and down the street. Then, sometime between my childhood and my younger brother’s childhood (and there are only 3 years between us), we got a Nintendo. Suddenly there weren’t so many kids outside running around. They were all indoors playing video games. But at least they were playing them together. Social life consisted of all the kids piling around the tv of whoever had the most advanced gaming system.

lonely computer personThen came the internet. And there went community. Because, and here’s my theory, if you have instant connection with anyone anywhere through the internet, whether it’s on your home computer or your mobile device, you can bring your community with you wherever you go. Why put forth the effort to get yourself to a class or a community event in the evening or on weekends when you can get your social fix by staying right where you are, at home?

And that, my friends, is what I think has happened to community in the 21st century. I think we are sated on the illusion of having friends and neighbors and being in touch with them, so we no longer have the same urge or drive to get off our butts to spend time with people. We don’t need to as long as we have the internet. The desperation to seek out other people doesn’t have to take us any further than our desks, or even the palms of our hands.

Now, I’m not going to make a judgment call on whether I think this is a good thing or a bad thing, or whether, as studies seem to say, the more Facebook friends you have, the more depressed you are. As far as I’m concerned, it could go either way. Sure, hardly anyone was in the classes I took or taught, but the other side of that coin is that I am once again in touch with some old friends who I would only just wonder about otherwise. And I get to see their pictures!

So what do you think? Has the internet become a substitute for community in the 21st century? Do people no longer feel the need to meet and talk face-to-face now that we can Skype or Google Chat?

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One thought on “21st Century Community

  1. Sorry for the late reply – weekend got away on me. Anyway, great piece, and interesting theory. But I’m not certain the Internet and electronic communication is the sole source of the problem. I think perhaps it started earlier than that. As you say, in the 19th c, church was a major social source for most people – and then some, also being a social obligation and the source of connection. Additionally, when you lived in small communities, you knew everyone. You knew who was “safe” and who wasn’t – and there was someone to call you out if you didn’t participate / volunteer / help your neighbors. By the time we hit the 80s, when our own household discovered Nintendo and the like (my family’s history with it sounds pretty similar) ;), there was already the start of that disconnect. The Internet was just one more excuse. I think it’s part of how we live today, in large cities that create anonymity – and fear, too. We’re not as good at interacting with others because we didn’t do it as much, and therefore it’s easier to just find excuses to not participate and get lost in general “too busy” mentality, even though when we do actually put ourselves out there and genuinely interact, it’s much more rewarding. Anyway, just my two cents. 🙂 I wish you luck with your classes. Perhaps you just need to broaden the net and give everyone a bit of a poke. 😉 Great post.

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