Posted by: Chris Hoskins | January 27, 2009

Can community be online?

Over the last few months I’ve been wrestling with the question: ‘can community exist online?’ Specifically in a Christian context.
With the rise in the last few years in social networking technology more and more people are referring to their online community. I do it, I’m sure many of you have at somepoint as well. But how often do we stop and think about what we mean by community?
To start, let me post the Oxford English dictionary definition of community:

• noun (pl. communities) 1 a group of people living together in one place. 2 (the community) the people of an area or country considered collectively; society. 3 a group of people with a common religion, race, or profession: the scientific community. 4 the holding of certain attitudes and interests in common. 5 a group of interdependent plants or animals growing or living together or occupying a specified habitat.

— ORIGIN Old French comunete, from Latin communis ‘common’.

I think that all 5 of these definitions of community can be useful for informing this discussion. Also informing my side of the discussion are chapter sin the following 3 books:
Postmodern Youth Ministry; Tony Jones
eMinistry; Andrew Carega
rewired; Peggy Kendall
To make things easy, i’ll take each chapter in turn, starting with rewired:
basically, in her section on virtual community, Peggy talks specifically about online community and the issues it raises, there seems to be no discussion or questioning of the presence of online community. her focus is on the lack of ‘responsilbe’ adults within teenage online communities, which could and does then lead to a lack of adult accountability amongst teenagers. no credit is given to peer accountability on the teenagers part, she seems quite resigned to the idea that without adult supervision and authority all teenagers will resort to swearing and sexual innuendo. An idea that may have some basis in reality, but I don’t think is a fair judgement on all teenagers. not that I’m supporting mono-generational communities!

What about Carega?
Carega also seems to go with the assumption that communities do exist online, then spends his chapter wondering why? He asks why more and more people are seeking to experience online community. What does it offer that people aren’t finding in ‘real life’ is his main question. He also spends some time acknowledging and thinking about those that argue point blank against the viability of online community. But ends up concluding that their definition of community is all about geography and physicality. Perhaps they are right? Who’s to say that community can only have one definition?

So what about Jones? i like jones approach, because he isn’t approaching the idea of community from a purely online context he isn’t hampered by what examples and inspirations he can call on. He doesn’t have to trawl the web for examples of online community that works, he just has to call on his and his peers experiences of good and bad community. He talks about community being a place of support and relationship, Jones is more concerned with community being authentic and honest than where it happens and what group of people are involved.

Obviously the 3 ‘reviews’ above are not extensive about the relevant chapters, for a fuller picture of what each says I would recomend looking up the book, i just wanted to give you and idea of what I’ve been reading while pndering this question. As I write this blog, I’ve asked my twitter buddies if the think community can exist online, If there are any responses before I finish this post, I’ll include them at the bottom. if you use twitter and want to follow me search for Chris_Hoskins

what about me? This is my blog, what do i think?
Bascially: yes, I do believe community can exist online. i don’t believe it will be as mutually beneficial as community which exists in the physical locale, but I still belive it can exist. All we need to do is respond to the notion of online community with a re-evaluated notion of what community is and can be. If we revisit the oxford english definitions again; 3/5 definitions rely on locale. 2/5 rely only on holding an attitude/belief/interest in common. And I’m quite happy to hold belief in all 5 definitions of community and accept that no community is likely to ever fit all 5.

I’ve found over the last 3 years that it is those whom I converse with online rather than in person that I’ve found to be most supportive in hard times. Does this count as community? Apart from my wife, most of the people I would consider my closest friends live at least 60 miles away from me, some even on a seperate continent. Yet I would still consider them to be part of my community, why shouldn’t I? how could i recieve support from and give support to my friends in Canada, none of whom I’ve had any physical interaction with for 5 years, and not consider myself in some sort of community with them?
Another case in point would be #twurch. A twitter ‘community’ that I was intorduced to through Stewart Cutler twurch is basically a group on twitter who both twitter and are Christian. I’ll include a twitter quote at this point, from tobite, a fellow twitterer who I’ve started talking to through twurch. He answered this to my twitter question: tobite @Chris_Hoskins yes – #twurch being a good example of this. I have met new people and am forming new bonds and friendships

I’ve just recieved a corker of a tweet from headphonaught, another twurch friend, he says:  headphonaught@Chris_Hoskins community isn’t a physical thing anymore. its a collective ideal. its the sharing of & participating in something beyond us
I love that notion of community. Even more so now that it supports what i said earlier about changing our definition of community in light of new experiences and revelations. It’s also, i think, a pretty good definition of church, no?

I hope this is all fitting together and making sense, I’ve not planned it, just sat down and let it come out!I wasn’t looking to write an academic text, just letting some stuff out of my head!

I think I’ll finish there for the time being, please comment and add to this discussion, i may come back and add more at somepoint.

Peace out

Chris

ps: this post is also available at missional tribe and SYMN

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Responses

  1. I think the key word in the defintition of community is ‘in common’ in the 4th one.

    Community for me is found and observed much more frequently when people share something or hold something in common. Twurch works because the people share following Christ and use of twitter. That community is deepened through ‘extras’ like A Hint Of Bergamot, a photoblog where some Twurch people share their passion for photography.

    Church is exactly the same. People sharing a belief in Christ.

    I don’t get it when people say there can’t be online community. Sure, it might not look like real life face-to-face community but it has many of the same traits, just different conduits to enable communication.

  2. When I did my sociology dissertation on community the definition was “kinship ties” (from Toennies theory “gemeinschaft und Geschellshaft” – “community and psuedo-community”) which previously related to a geographical village style family community. As kinship has changed with the times, families can be spread all over the country and the world and so the definition of community has evolved with it.

    So if your communication online echoes a kinship style of relationship I argue it can be true community. Some family members you spend more time with than others. Some you connect with more naturally than others. But it’s still family.


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