Communities

This week I’ve come across two opposing views of the nature of online communities. On Weekend Edition this past Sunday, Shari Caudron was interviewed about her book, Who Are You People?, which looks at people across a diverse set of self-selected communities. One of the people she mentioned was a woman named Judy, a Barbie collector from Fort Worth. Judy’s son was killed a few years ago and while her friends in her physical community slowly melted away, her friends in her online community of fellow Barbie collectors and enthusiasts rallied to support her.

The story describes a community made possible by the Internet but which demonstrated the qualities of a community better than the physical one where Judy lived.

On the flip side, in yesterday’s PC Magazine, John Dvorak paints a very different picture of online communities:

Though there are a lot of social networks, newsgroups, forums, and club-like Web sites on the Internet and Web, these entities are not true communities, although many purport to be. Worse, they are often peopled with phonies and posers who see the whole thing as an elaborate video game.

Column from PC Magazine: The Mystery of the Online Community

As I read his column and thought back to the story I had heard on Sunday, it was hard to see how these two people could be describing the same phenomenon. While there are issues with false identities online, I think Dvorak is confusing it with the creation and use of online persona’s. The ability to present an idealized version of yourself – regardless of the name you use – is one of the appealing things about online communities. That isn’t the same as being a phony or a poser.

The information you provide, or the care and support you give, aren’t limited to the name on your driver’s license. By the same token, people can merrily use their real names to be complete jackasses – both online and offline. Creating communities is happening online in a way that for better or worse isn’t happening to the same degree offline these days. Rather than wring our hands and complain about it, we need to get involved and become active and positive members of the communities that matter to us – no matter where they exist.

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