Wednesday, July 25, 2007

New Media, Old rules

A discussion group I have been a part of - or more accurately, a series of loosely related groups - has been going through an unpleasant period. Lots of hard feelings. Lots of bruised egos. Some nasty childishness. It has been most discouraging. I've known most of these people, electronically at least, for five or six years. It used to be a refuge for me. I spent a lot of time interacting with these people after I started working from home, a move that deprived me of the normal social network provided by working in a newsroom. This was my virtual version of the water cooler. Fortunately, I've managed to keep out of the actual fights online, but the fallout has been hard on all of us.

One of the players wisely observed this:
"We've gotten OLD. We can't take a joke and we can't handle criticism. We don't think people are worth the effort that forgiveness costs, nor do we think they deserve it."

And I think he is right. It got me to thinking about the way the Internet changes some of the rules for building - and dismantling - communities.

These sites of ours illustrate an interesting inversion caused by the Internet. In real life, building a group of friends is relatively hard - you generally have to meet people based on geography: school, work, church, neighborhood, whatever, then overcome social and cultural barriers of age, class, nationality, race, and so on. On the Internet, it is uniquely easy - people of common interest can come together despite considerable differences in age, race, geography, all of that. So that's really good.

But the interesting thing is that in real life, breaking up a group is fairly easy. People move away, get married, develop new interests, get a new job, go to a new school. Groups tend to disperse. On the Internet, however, breaking up is relatively hard. None of the things that allow a group to be fluid, to drift apart before the members get on each other's collective nerves, don't really matter. If you move? No problem. Get married? No problem, nobody notices. Go to a new school? Get a new job? Move across town? Still in touch. To get away, you have to actively drop out and quit going to the discussion group, which is in a way much more difficult than drifting away, as you would do in real life. So the group remains, year after year after year. Resentments build. Interests change. On and on and on. We get tired of each other.

Imagine what would have happened if your best group of best buddies from College or High School had kept living in the same dorm together for years and years on end. I bet you wouldn't be such good buddies now. Or at least there would be ugly fractures among the group. But I'd bet your best buddies have all scattered, or at least spun off to some degree. Sure you're all still good buddies, but now, instead of seeing each other 12 hours a day, seven days a week, you see each other 12 hours out of every few months, or talk on the phone once a month, get together on the weekend once in a while. That doesn't happen as easily on the Internet - you're much more in or out. You either living there in the dorm day after day or you've dropped out of school.

That's what happened to us, I think.

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