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When is a community not a community: when it’s a network of people who think they’re a community.

I was recently directed to Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto. A great book, well worth a read. It’s big print: so only the concepts will be scary to the less open-minded.

Although his central theme is that there is a difference between ‘education’ (learning stuff worth knowing) and ‘school’ (a centralised monopoly business designed for programming conformance), the broader picture echoing the deterioration of community struck a particular chord.

I’ve long since thought back to days gone by where us kids would play out in the road and the parents would be hopping across to each others’ houses for chats and coffee. And, quite possibly, that was a smaller scale version of what happened a generation before, and a generation before that. So I’ve often wondered where we — as a society — went wrong now we don’t trust the people across the road and don’t socialise very much outside our loose network of colleagues.

Pass the remote

Part of the reason of course is control: it’s easier to control a populace if you can stop them interacting; stop them thinking for themselves. And the rise of TV / mainstream media has done a fantastic job engendering us that way.

But even without a conspiratorial hat on, what do people want — really want — deep down? The answer, which is alarmingly obvious after reading the book but had somehow passed me by, is friendship. Not friendship in the sense of ‘we go out for drinks after work’ but true friendship. People you truly miss when they’re not around. People who care not just only for themselves but for you. And likewise, people you really care about.

How many people can you honestly name with which you share that bond? Probably not many. At least not in your neighbourhood.

Community vs network

The crux of the matter seems to be that we have been conditioned into thinking that a network is the same thing as a community. I’m a member of the Textpattern CMS community and it’s the friendliest online community I’ve ever encountered. It makes me feel great and proud to be part of it, but I don’t really know any of the people there. They’re all terrific to talk with; I’ve met a handful and they’re all frightfully decent people. But is it a community in the proper sense of the word? No, it’s a network. Same goes for your work colleagues who you play badminton with after hours, or the local church goers: all mere networks.

Which got me thinking about Facebook — something that didn’t exist when JTG wrote the book (heck, the Internet didn’t exist in its public form). Facebook is phenomenally popular despite it appearing to be an utter waste of time, and now I know why: it’s what we want. We have no real community any more, despite networks and neighbourhoods being badged as communities by the politicians and press. We live in cities and suburbs and villages, insular and mildly sociable, but nowhere near enough to satisfy our inner humanity; our basic human needs.

Facebook gives us some of that back. We can connect with people we know but don’t live near. We build a virtual street. We can pop over the digital road and see what Abigail has been doing today or what Ben thought of last night’s TV show. We can complain and whine about having a bad day and our friends will all post “aww, there there” messages against our statuses; and we’ll feel loved for that instant; like we matter to someone.

No wonder Facebook’s banned at many workplaces: it’s anti-corporate and makes us feel important without the tit-for-tat reciprocation of my-time-for-your-money. It may also explain why its demographic rapidly shifted from hip youngsters to a middle-aged user base who crave attention and meaning in their otherwise sterile pseudo-communities. It’s not simply there are more middlies or that the market is saturated at the lower range (if anything the older generation are less likely to adopt new technology than their cooler counterparts), I’d argue the need is so much greater.

People then and now

A few years ago I would enjoy sitting quietly in a coffee shop and just watching social interaction. As a scriptwriter and author, it’s fantastic fodder to soak up daily dialogue and see real life unfold before me. Now of course — aside from the fact it doesn’t pay the mortgage — I can’t do that for fear of being thumped or branded a terrorist / pervert / freak for observing my surroundings, or told to move on by tetchy staff; mainly because I don’t like coffee and am therefore a limited revenue source.

Perhaps that’s why places like France offer such a draw: that culture of watching the world go by is still acceptable. But switching to Facebook is no match for the real thing. People still wear a different hat when on Facebook, subconsciously or not. Interaction is still somehow diminished. And some people use it as a platform for competing on how many ‘friends’ one has, which is absurd in extremis.

When all’s told, Facebook is still a network masquerading as a community. It just does a better job of blurring the lines than anything else to date to fill our vacuous lives with human context. It’s still better to go across the street and have coffee with your neighbours. I suggest you switch the TV off and do it. Today.

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