Online vs Physical Community: What is at stake?

Last night, at a WBUR gala, I sat with one of our clients, Deborah Stone, who is an accomplished writer and professor of Political Science at Dartmouth, and we had a stimulating conversation about the fine line that online social networks rides between deteriorating and strengthening physical community and interaction.

The small New Hampshire town where she lives, Deborah said, was “the town equivalent of a depressed person.” No one in the town, which is made up mostly of older folks, knew each other, let alone what was going on in the town. The town lacked any sense of community or pride. So Deborah created a small town “glossy” newsletter where community members can submit stories or editorials, town happenings, and even profile local citizens. The newsletter, Deborah said, helped revitalize the town and she has seen a sense of community develop based on this publication alone. However, she posed to me this question: could an online community have this same effect on a physical community that the newsletter did?

I was stumped. Because in reality, I know for a fact that an online community or newsletter would not be effective in this situation. Because most older people don’t even have access to the internet, let alone use social networks. However, even the younger people in the town seem to gravitate toward a more traditional community. Deborah informed me that, in fact, the library is almost the social center of the town, even for young people. So in this instance, no, I do not think that an online community could come even close to building the sense of community that this town needed.

But the older generation has to face the harsh reality that technology is changing and with it are our communication methods. What is at stake is that our grandparents, and even our parents, are being left out of these developing social networks and communities and, therefore, miss out on valuable virtual interactions.

I have plenty more to say about this, but I don’t want to bore you to tears. I’d rather hear your opinion instead. Do you think that an online community can replace physical interactions and “traditional” media in order to create a sense of community? Pros/cons? What is at stake when transitioning between an online and a physical community?photo-online_community1

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Published in: on November 18, 2008 at 10:27 am  Comments (1)  
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