I tweeted earlier today to say I was going to try something ambitious – to post on the general subject of online community, on Martin Luther King Jr Day. The reason is partly because this time last year I wrote a very short post which recalled the 30th anniversary of Dr King’s death, where I was there with BBC reporter Maurice Walsh to help report on the event. In fact while I’d pitched it to BBC R4, they decided to scrub the story in favour of the more current Clinton impeachment. Anyhow, of course there was and is still controversy about King’s death; and at an event in a Memphis church I went to I recall hearing an impassioned speech by Bill Pepper. What also stayed in my memory was the words of a Memphis friend who basically said to Pepper at the end of the event that kind of speech may have worked then, but now there was no such thing as ‘community’ anymore for it to connect with.
I’d forgotten this until recently when I read this piece by John Michael Greer on eco-energy activism (for want of a better term) which questioned the unthinking use of the term community when in social movement terms it is no longer something a lot of people are prepared to invest time and energy in: “The problem we face now, though, is that uncomfortable looks, scuffing feet, and abstracted gazes out the nearest convenient window are no longer adequate responses to a situation that’s rapidly spinning out of control. The costs of community may not be something most of us want to pay, but in the world that is taking shape around us, the alternative for a great many of us may be much worse.”
It’s a curious conclusion for some progressives I guess set against the optimism of Clay Shirky in ‘Here Comes Everybody’ who sees in the Obama Campaign or the fight against HSBC fees organised on Facebook, the power of online communities to connect people together in a common cause. But after a year in the online community field working at the ICAEW during the biggest financial crisis of modern times, and another year working in helping organisations including NCVO launch online communities, it’s worth asking whether or not online communities are the answer to help facilitate change from ‘below’ amongst the many other things people spend their precious time with, including launching businesses and simply having fun? I certainly believe so. But also don’t forget the importance of key individuals, nor the positive way that communities currently exist in their heterogeneity, which need to be factored into how to grow communities online. All too often it’s easy to take an old-fashioned view of how to build communities online. But just because it’s easier for people to get together online doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily interact any differently than offline. What do you think?