Posted by: Steven Harris | July 13, 2008

The Geography of Community

I’ve heard Tom Peters talk about “communities of interest” in a number of different venues recently, including the recent ALA annual conference in Anaheim. He has spoken about this idea especially in regards libraries and information services in Second Life. The idea is that people and libraries no longer form community by virtue of geographic proximity. A virtual library (even in Second Life) exists in a kind of geography-free zone. Users may be from 5 or 5,000 miles away. In our current network environment, with its explosion of social networking tools, it’s an idea that has a lot of traction and appeal. What brings online people together is shared interest and concerns. It makes a lot of sense too. I probably have more in common with the friends I’ve made online than with the people living right next door.

There are some folks, however, who have concerns about this kind of online community. Nat Torkington at O’Reilly and Shankar Vedantam at the Washington Post both have recent pieces talking about homophily, the phenomenon that describes how groups are made up of people who are homogeneous in their ideas and outlook. “Life is easy when you’re unchallenged,” Torkington writes. Even though we call it social software, will we be socially stunted if we don’t interact with people who are different than ourselves?

I don’t feel a great deal of concern about the dangers of homophily for a couple of reasons. To begin with, we behave the same way in the actual world, not just online. I live in a pretty conservative community, but most of the people I interact with are pretty liberal university folks. Hearing a lot of conservative rhetoric tends to make me uncomfortable. It’s probably best for my health not to subject myself to it too often!

That being said, I think people have a greater diversity of ideas than we understand. In Second Life, although I hang out with lots of librarians, who have a pretty homogeneous professional ethics, I encounter people every day that I disagree with pretty strongly. In an even smaller sub-community, those interested in literature and book discussions, I find I can get in an argument at the drop of a hat. Furthermore, people form a variety of communities and move from one to another depending on a kaleidescope of needs or interests. No one group may feed all my needs.

Granted, I think it is a good idea to be aware of differing opinions on a particular topic, but in no community that I have been in are the inhabitants identical. We come to our ideas and beliefs from unique backgrounds. It would be hard for anyone to have exactly the same ideas that I do.

I think social networks and libraries should aid people in forming whatever kind of community they are interested in forming. We should trust that people are different and not worry that we are aiding in the creation of automatons. If people want to form groups that share a basic philosophy, who am I to say otherwise? Community should be honored wherever and however it forms.

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