Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Cyber-Friends - Virtual Communities

People are such individuals that finding folks with similar interests is a real crap shoot. Groups like the Inklings that drew the likes of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien only happened because a pub near a university with a world-reknown literature program drew professors who liked the same things. The Internet allows that to happen too. I have hundreds of "friends", but only about 20 I interact with regularly and a handful of people who have become pretty good friends. I don't think we've explored fully the potential the Internet has for creating close-knit virtual communities.

Our families won't likely understand why we participate in virtual communities any more than they would understand if we were spending hours at the local pub with a bunch of close friends or hanging out in some guy's garage playing folk music on zithers or souping up his 57 Chevy. People hunger for friendships with people who share what they believe; who can finish their thoughts, challenge their assumptions and make them question who they really are.

We need that. How many of us have families that understand us even a little bit? Certainly not our kids. Our spouses may get us, but family dynamics and the proclivities of our sexes may also prevent that kind of relationship that happens between friends. We share time with our spouses. We love them and we may even share a kind of friendship, but their social and intellectual interests and ours often drift in different directions. It does not mean we are not lovers or even the best of friends if we find we need a little "me" time with our buddies. Women often need time with their friends for girl talk and in the same way guys often want male companionship. After all, you may love your spouse dearly, but you may not necessarily share your lover's obsessions. I may call them hobbies, but my sweetie may not see at all how THAT (insert whatever it is you like to do when you're bored) could be called a hobby - it's just wasting time.

Your spouse probably doesn't want to hear you prattle on about your toy trains or your obsession over Civil War history, your RC airplanes or your canoe-building project. And frankly, maybe you aren't interested in feng schui, gardening or pan flute music.

The Internet connects you to folks who enjoy talking about what you enjoy. It's a wonderful way to meet your need to socialize, even if you never make "real world" contact with any of your group. The net gives you access to tools and information you might never have found otherwise. Now, if you want to make a banjo out of a bedpan, you can find someone to show you how!

I think with the Internet, we expand our socialization opportunities. There are many people who, when they retire, lose social contact because they no longer go to work. Men are notoriously disconnected and studies show this may be why they die younger than women who build better social networks. The Internet can help men, particularly, in creating social networks around shared interests - like having a fishing buddy does for some guys.

I think we have a really powerful tool here and haven't fully explored how it can be used.  Here are some ways to find folks who share your interests:

1.  Search Engine - All search engines are not created equal. Try searching your favorite pastime or hobby on several of them like Google Search, Yahoo, Bing or Mamma.com. The Search Engine List provides a comprehensive list of search engines. Try several. You'll be surprised what resources are out there.

2. Favorites List - Create a favorites list folder in your browser for your area of interest. As you find interesting websites, save them in your folder. This allows you to not only find sites you want easily, but to also share resources you find with others who share your interest.

3. Specialized Social Networks - Many hobbyist sites exist which offer forums, information libraries, downloadable materials, guides, plans or e-books about the shared interest. Join up and join the discussion. I'm a regular member of a site called Banjo Hangout. It offers me music, a banjo web page of my own where I can download pictures of me playing, videos, audio files and weblog entries. I can participate in forums, learn how to set up my instrument, customize it or just make it sound better. I can check out new accessories, buy strings, used equipment or talk with an expert about a problem I have.  None of this would have been possible without the Internet. I have access to literally thousands of skilled banjo players all over the world. Without the Internet, I'd have maybe one or two banjo players I could hook up with if that many, none of whom likely have the level of experience I can enlist on the Hangout. You can also create your own social network for a few bucks a month from providers like Ning.com. I belong to 4 poetry websites, a charity golf site and to banjo, guitar, toy soldier collectors, autism and nonprofit social networks, all create by individuals with a passion for something.

4. General Social Networks - Facebook has become the Daddy of all social networks. Many specialized networks set up feeder group pages on Facebook to help people find their resources. You can, however, set up your own group on Facebook. The group can be inclusive or limited to a small group of participants. A local writer's group or hobby club can easily set up a Facebook group that allows members to post videos, pictures, share ideas or simply shoot the breeze with one another. It's an easy resource for any group that wants to create a virtual community with minimal work.

5. E-mail Listserves - The E-mail listserve is a tool that lets you communicate with a group of members through a single e-mail address. Send an e-mail to Widgetcollectors@collectors.net and everyone in the group gets the e-mail. It can even be set to refuse mail from nonmembers. This method works great for less sophisticated web-users, but is being replaced by on-line forums which can be set up relatively easy on social sites.

6. E-mail Newsletters - Several free resources can help you set up a newsletter in you area of interest that allows you to create your own newspaper on the subject and share it with your friends.  They sign up and you send them the newsletter on a regular basis.  You can even sell advertising to vendors if you develop a large enough list to help pay for your time creating it.

We've not yet seen all the ways in which virtual communities can be created I expect. I may have to come back to this post soon and add some numbers to my list. The Internet has not finished exploring new ways to create connections between people. While pundits once feared that the Internet might serve to turn us all into a homogeneous, look-alike mass, the reality has been that the Internet has facilitated the creation of millions of small virtual communities on-line that allow us to express how different we all truly are. Turns out the tools of technology were just that - tools. They didn't turn us into tin-foil hat wearing geeks after all - at least with most of us it didn't.

For anyone out there who thought the Internet might be a means to rule Marshall Macluhan's so-called "Global Village", I suspect he'll be frustrated in his efforts. The Internet has, in fact, created a vast network of virtual villages that attract groups of fierce individuals and has allowed us to be as parochial as we ever were back in pre-industrial history. Looks like we're far more like the stubborn individuals of the Rennaisance and the Revolution than the gray homogenous "masses" the modern political theorists would have us believe we are.

See you 'round the Internet you rugged individualist you!.

Tom King


No comments:

Post a Comment