A New York Times event raised more questions than it answered.
Many sites and services present themselves as places to keep up with old friends or to find people one can meet later on, sometimes in groups ranging from cat lovers to White Militia. A substitute for face-to-face contacts, they do not try to be.
But allow me to digress to remote communities and concentrate on those in the north. Nordic countries, Inuit, Siberian, whatever, the percentage of wired households is generally very high.
Before, they were necessarily close knit, with all its rewards, but also their share of rancor (Not all trolls are online or under bridges). What happens to all that when the Internet and social media arrive? There are anthropologists of the Internet, but not many address this basic question.
Iceland is very wired. Second-hand information is that time online is not excessive and old community channels largely survive.
What happens in the high arctic, where for many months the cold discourages leaving the house? In the far north of Canada the CBC has long maintained local radio stations. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_radio_stations_in_Nunavut
Note the format: “public, talk.” A Canadian archaeologist working in Resolute once elaborated to me. The chitchat ranges from gossip to advice, but much is mundane, e.g., someone dropped by for tea and biscuits. I read that people in Resolute have complained about slow access speeds, so interest in the Net is strong. Still, the radio station goes on.
As a regular reader of the NYT daily paper since the 1970s, I often choose to send quick thoughts to the comment section of the "online" version of NYT news stories. which generally appear the next day in the "hardcopy" NYT.
I suspect the online NYT has more "community" readers than the hardcopy NYT, although I don't know the actual #$s, but I sense there's more sense of community in the online version which allows immediate thoughtful comments from readers.
So, sharing and reading "others" views of NYT news stories or opinions pieces generally creates a greater sense of shared community with online opportunities.
In my opinion, the Washington Post reader comments sections seem more alienating, probably because the format has been changed recently and it's difficult to follow intelligent string conversations.
Recently, I noticed the WAPO comments are cruel or condescending put-downs, on both sides of the political issues, as can be expected, since 2016, especially.
Years ago, in the mid 1970s, I tried the "Community" friendship card with some Chinese ambassadors in Wash DC along with some Americans from the National Committee on United States China Relations (NCUSCR), but still, even then, the "Taiwan issue" dislodged any further agreement of hope for continued community. That's almost 50 years ago.
So, since most online communities provide anonymous feedback in most instances, since the actual name of the commenter is rarely used - I think stronger community is being degraded before our eyes.
Even "in person" conversations require a "decoding." Can that be because there is too much info to be digested, and, we are being driven further apart because FEAR and MISTRUST has been weaponized by a small segment of our declining culture.
As Karen Christensen accurately noted, online acquaintances are more likely than face-to-face acquaintances to disappear abruptly, grandstand, or exhibit other types of thoughtless or coarse behavior. Furthermore, social media corporations' algorithms have been designed to maximize advertising revenue by encouraging highly emotional on-line behavior instead of more calm or cerebral communications. That is the main reason I have never opened a social media account with the likes of Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram--aside from my view that social media is rife with misinformation (at a proportion of 6 to1 in Facebook, according to a recent study) and almost entirely a waste of time. Time would be better spent reading a peer-reviewed book or article; reading high-quality journalism from the likes of Atlantic Monthly, Axios, or Vox; writing something for publication; corresponding with a friend or relative by email or even an old-fashioned paper letter; or doing some gardening, hiking, snow shoveling, or feeding the birds. As the editor or co-editor of quite a few scholarly edited volumes, my general impression from the standpoint of an editor is having had more effective communication with contributors whom I knew from face-to-face encounters than with contributors I had met solely on-line through the medium of email, Skype, or Zoom. From the standpoint of a contributor, since naturally I've contributed a lot more chapters to edited volumes than edited them myself, having a face-to-face acquaintance with the editor(s) seems less important, though still desirable.
How does one define or evaluate the quality of a relationship? Most evaluations these days require statistical algorithms analyzing measurements gleaned from consistent data collection. They produce proxies for quality, but can't assess the ineffable nature of quality itself.
Perhaps our definition of community will change in time to match our new reality? The pandemic accelerated and normalized our use of group video exchanges and the time spent In physical isolation incentivized us to explore new virtual communities like Clubhouse. Remember Clubhouse? I imagine that many people around the world today feel like Rip Van Winkle waking up from his 20 year slumber. Our sense of community will continue to change and the rate of change is likely going to accelerate. Exciting times!