I’ve been grappling of late with the concept of online community. It seems on the surface like it should be a good thing. I love the internet and community is a fine concept. Put them together and it should be excellent. Yes? No?
For the last four weeks, I've been getting death threat comments on this blog. But that's not what pushed me over the edge. What finally did it was some disturbing threats of violence and sex posted on two other blogs... blogs authored and/or owned by a group that includes prominent bloggers.
An online community of bloggers attacked her. Sierra, who’s blog was positive and beautiful, stopped blogging. I’m sure the impact on her non-virtual life has been enormous and long lasting.
Less dramatic, but similar in many ways is the recent Twittack on CBC producer Ira Basen. Basan was actually virtually slagged by some Twitterers while he was onstage giving a speech. An online community – of which he wasn’t a part – ganged up on him. There was a meanness to the attack. Maybe they didn’t like his ideas, but the words don’t feel like an intellectual challenge. They seem hostile.
Online communities can get vicious. And when two communities get mad at the same time, there can be a blog battle, like the one that took place after I presented Story2.OH at Case Camp last year, with the Jets/PR-types on one side and the artist/screenwriting Sharks on the other. To appreciate the scope of the virtual war, you have to scroll down on both links are read the comments, along with those below my original post on getting deleted by Facebook. It was the virtual version of a territorial war – no knives, but some colourful use of language. It certainly left lasting scars.
Speaking of wars, remember Color Wars, ze frank’s inventive collection of online community games for the Twitter community? Twitter bingo, online Rock, Paper, Scissors, Rap Battle Remix. I don’t think anyone argued with the judges or stamped their foot about losing. That was big time virtual fun. And what a great sense of community it developed. There wasn’t any bitterness between say Team Puce and the Off White Team. Color War built a sense of camaraderie.
The web has certainly created a sense of community for Canadian screenwriters. We began gathering virtually around Dead Things on Sticks, Ink Canada and Facebook, then expanded to add more blogs and Twitter to our realm as well as our non-virtual events. In my experience this is a warm, supportive, friendly, funny community that knows how to hoist a pint. This is an example of online community excellence.
Every status update, every comment, every little fart of consciousness that gets posted to that site sounds more or less like every other one: an attempt to look smart, sound detached, act aloof, as if life really were an endless series of caustic remarks and mild annoyances.
It's like being trapped in a nightmarish Oscar Wilde theme park, where everything is surface and snark and everybody has an animatronic smile fixed on their face. It's not what's said on Facebook that amazes me. It's what's left unsaid: Nobody is vulnerable or depressed. Nobody is on anti-depressants.
There’s extreme truth in what he’s saying.
When I interviewed Damian Kindler, creator of Sanctuary, which started out online and then became a tv series, he had plenty to say about community. A strong community had formed around Sanctuary when it launched on the web. And Damian came to hate them. He had hoped to harness their enthusiasm and turn them into ambassadors for the series. Instead they succumbed to petty in fighting and were a massive drain on his time and energy to the point that he had to close down most of his own online presence to get his life back. Online communities can be a pain in the fucking ass.
Yesterday on Twitter were all the people who noticed and tweeted #peace. We didn’t make a difference, didn’t bring any wars to an end or save lives and we probably didn’t even draw the attention of any politicians. But collectively, we called for peace. Can thinking about it, hoping for it, voicing our desire for it be wrong? Of course not. Online community can have a collective conscience; we can dream together.
Online communities take many forms, kind of like offline communities. We humans are a varied and interesting bunch. We never cease to amaze me. Individuals want different things from the web and use it differently. Sometimes we hook up with a bunch of like-minded types and our grouping takes on a personality of its own.
In some ways, being on the web is like being back in high school. There are the emo kids and the goths, jocks and preppies, the hipsters and the nerds and many many more. There are definitely some mean kids out there. Beware of them. Despite the fact that their sticks and stones are only words, they can definitely hurt you.
Recently I had a Twitter exchange with Karen Walton that turned into a blog post about what Twitter can do for writers. I had been floundering around in the dark trying to make sense of my obsession and Karen’s thoughts on the subject had been sort of an epiphany for me. But when I blogged about it, the comment gave me even great insight.
One of the comments I loved most was from MJ Reid, a member of my virtual posse – we met on Facebook and are Twee-pals as well, but have yet to meet in person:
Members of primate groups (bands? communities?) make efforts to connect with the other members of their groups, even just with a touch or a couple of seconds of togetherness in a task. This (apparently) fosters common purpose and belonging. The same happens with human groups, and always has. Getting together at meal-time; religious and / or social events; marriages, births, funerals; sport and games; art and music - all examples of social community building.
The big difference with Twitter and the like is it allows community building to be intentional and non-local. You’re not constrained by physical proximity. You can add and remove members of your intentional community at will. You can connect faster, wider, and more powerfully than ever before. Heady stuff.
That’s one of the things I love most about my online communities, how they’ll apply their minds to the problems that challenge me. Collectively, I have confidence we’ll figure it all out.