Can We Find Real Community Online?

A New York Times event raised more questions than it answered.

Yesterday the New York Times held an event called “Can We Find Real Community Online?” for subscribers only, at no charge. It was a research exercise for them, and turned out to be a good research venture for me, too, because a day in advance they set up a Slack channel. They assigned a journalist named Jim Colgan to kickstart discussion with occasional questions.

I decided to add questions of my own, and I learned a couple of things.

First, as you know, there are certain behaviors online that would simply never happen in real life. The man who immediately asked if I was the UC Berkeley Karen Christensen, with a nice message about how he thought we’d met in the Yucatan, disappeared after I responded. In real life, we’d have laughed about it and then talked for a minute.

More important was the vast difference between my take on the subject and that of the New York Times.

The program’s title was “Can We Find Real Community Online?” When I ask that question, I’m thinking about what makes “real community” and about the quality of relationships online, compared to relationships sustained face to face.

This matters because a sense of community is a vital component of human happiness.

A sense of community increases our well-being, physically and mentally, and even helps us live longer. It even helps us make better life choices and spend less. I wanted to drill into that and find out what makes online relationships different, and how they might be enriched and deepened.

But the speakers, as well as the tech professionals, were thinking about trolls and threats and online mayhem. When the live-stream program started, the Times technology writer Shira Ovide began by saying that there were two widely accepted rules for creating a successful community online: lots of rules and lots of moderation.

That is policing, not community building.

But that seems to be the main thing people were concerned about, along with creating business models and revenue streams.

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Admittedly, real-life communities and third places often have unofficial moderators. Bartenders and old-timers take this role. But what moderates a group in real life is often just the group itself. If someone starts to get out of line - voice getting louder, not letting anyone else talk - there’s a ripple through the crowd, subtle movements, eye contact, and the problem person is often brought down to earth without a single word being said.

There was also quite a bit on Slack about using AI to moderate online conversations. I found that creepy, having just been reading about the disappearance of a Chinese tennis star after she posted on Weibo that she’d been sexually abused by a senior member of the country’s leadership. That her post could have been found and deleted as quickly as it was (within minutes, according to reports) means they are using AI to look for leaders’ names in real time. All I could think, as I read the Slack messages about how great it will be when AI can monitor conversations to remove “toxic” content, was how easily that technology could be abused.

Is it possible, you might wonder, to assess the quality of relationships? I did a search and found articles about testing the quality of a marriage, and also a lot about measuring children’s friendships. I did not find anything on the issue I had in mind: the effect of knowing someone for a long time, of having common friends, of having shared experiences (going to school together can create strong bonds, and going to summer camp together seems to be even more of a relationship cement), and simply having biographical information. If you know of research on this, please do let me know.

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Sure, while on Slack I was able to look up one of the people I was chatting to. But that’s not the kind of biographical information you get from normal face-to-face conversation. Think of the common gambit when you first meet someone, that search for mutual friends or some common experience that often starts a cocktail or dinner party conversation. Think of the things you pick up about workmates or neighbors just from being around them, seeing who’s coming and going, whether they are bright in the morning or desperately sucking down coffee, whether they seem to be on the go all the time or taking a lot of leisurely walks.

Don’t get me wrong: friendships and community are not only face-to-face. My closest friends are far away, and I’ve had some very important friendships with people I’ve never met. And there’s Ray Oldenberg, whom I corresponded with for nearly 20 years before we met.

But it was important that we meet, and spend time together. One of the chapters I have to write for the new edition of The Great Good Place will be asking the question the New York Times asked yesterday. I intend to have an answer that deals with more than policing bad behavior.

An interesting detail from the Slack conversation, by the way, is that people wanted to limit their children’s screen time, but said they had given up trying to limit their own. That surprised me. I thought we were all tired of Zoom and racing for the nearest restaurant or picnic or parade.

An event run by tech people attracts the screen evangelists, of course. They seemed very nice, from the brief exchanges we had. I still know nothing about them. In fact, I tried dropping details about my interests into the chat, which did stimulate conversation. But the only information anyone else revealed was their professional position or a pitch for their start-up.

I’ll keep trying. Folks like that are clearly interested in talking about these issues and it helps me to hear different perspectives. There is only one thing that’s ever stopped me cold in an online community gathering: “ice breakers.”

I loathe ice breakers. But there is one that fits with the idea that to develop any kind of relationship you need to learn something meaningful about the other person. I saw this work well at a dinner party at my house, when I had invited a dozen people who didn’t know one another (a few were visiting, and the others were scattered local acquaintances). Someone said, “Let’s go around the table and tell everybody about your hometown.”

It was a great way to learn something different about my friends, and it taught me a lesson about myself: I really didn’t have an answer. I don’t have a hometown. And maybe that’s why I find community so endlessly fascinating.

The ironical twist is that my question about the quality of online relationships provoked more replies than all the other posts put together.

I’d love to hear what you think.

Warm regards, Karen.

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