February 6, 2013

Online communities are discovered, not made

How communities of interest emerge organically

Chris AbrahamWhile I was gobsmacked by composer Eric Whitacre and his virtual choir 2,000 voices strong, Whitacre didn’t make the community that resulted in “Sleep” (embedded above). He allowed it, he enabled it, he discovered it, he facilitated it. There were always 2,052 people in the world who hungered to make art with their voices in a profound way with others.

All that Eric Whitacre did was allow it to happen.

In the past, before the advent of a sophisticated and user-friendly Internet, men and women would pack a duffle bag and catch a Greyhound bus in order to follow their dreams. Dreams had been always associated with two things: 1) getting away from all the negative Nellies who diminished their dreams as selfish, unattainable, or foolhardy, and 2) going someplace where you would finally find birds of a feather. New York for writers and actors, Cambridge for smarties and philosophers, L.A. for movie stars and rockers, and San Francisco if you just needed an all-accepting culture embrace.

These cities were destinations not because of their skyscrapers but because of the people and cultures housed within.

In the last 20 years, things have started to change. People are coming out of hiding. We see it in highest relief when it comes to dating: People are finding the loves of their lives online, geographic proximity and convenience be damned!

The Internet has been bringing people together all the way back when chatting required thermal paper and limited connection to a big mainframe somewhere else. Love affairs and friends-for-life were established via modem and BBS, amongst the chatter and heavy tolls of AOL chat rooms, down through the history and evolution of the web and all the way to the doorsteps of the EricWhitacreVEVO channel on YouTube and its majestic and profound Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 2.0, “Sleep.”

A community isn’t made

Courtesy of LeStudio1.com via Creative Commons

Mark Zuckerburg did not make the community that is Facebook; nor did Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson make MySpace.

The Internet did not invent social networking; it didn’t even invent the term. Social network analysis goes all the way back to the 19th century when Georg Simmel explored webs of group affiliations.

We are social animals and we pursue connection with others no matter what. Case in point: One of the 2,052 participants in the “Sleep” choir shared that her hunger for community, connection, and creativity was so strong, she was able to transcend both negativity and the Great Alaskan Bush to join Eric Whitacre’s emergent creative community of purpose:

In the Internet age, we’re more able to choose the members of our tribes based on our passions, politics, who we love and what matters to us

“When I told my husband that I was going to be a part of this, he told me that I did not have the voice for it. It hurt so much, and I shed some tears, but something inside of me wanted to do this despite his words. It is a dream come true to be a part of this choir, as I have never been a part of one. When I place a marker on the Google Earth Map, I had to go with the nearest city which is almost 400 miles away from where I live. As I am in the Great Alaskan Bush, satellite is my connection to the world.”

While the barriers to greatness, acclaim and world-class work have fallen for those of us who are on the Internet site of the digital divide, it wouldn’t matter either way. People have always desperately been in search of connection. We have always been in search of family. And, in the Internet age, we’re more able to choose the members of our families, to join tribes based not on blood, township, region, nation state, or continent, but based on our passion, our politics, what matters to us, who we love, what we do, or whatever turns us on.

Experiment with your identity

What’s more, the Internet allows you to moonlight. It allows you to cheat on your identity. It allows you to try on as many identities as you like without every really needing to choose just one.

It takes a heaping spoonful of bravery to invest the sort of time, energy, emotion, vulnerability, and commitment into people you’ve most likely never met

The Internet is not some sort of escapism. Virtual communities are not some sort of easy escape route. It takes a heaping spoonful of bravery to invest the sort of time, energy, emotion, vulnerability, and commitment into people you’ve most likely never met (and possibly will never meet) when our entire history as human beings has been spent face to face. As a result, these hammer-forged relationships tend to become fiercely loyal and committed.

I pity the fool who underestimates the true power of all of this silliness. Eric Whitacre’s amazing experiment in emergent community building may well be one of the most high-profile and magnificent recent manifestations of self-selection, but it is neither new nor uncommon. Gorgeous new families are being born to this world every day thanks to the Internet — and, honestly, we’re all very new to this. The Internet is still so small, so new, and in some ways elitist.

More and more of the world is falling prey to the barrierless accessibility of the Internet, globally. When the language barrier is transcended and the digital divide is razed, just imagine what Eric Whitacre will be able to do with his amazing mad skills and generous heart. Imagine what each and every one of his choir members will be able to do as well, all by themselves, with a little help of a couple thousand of their closest friends.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

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Chris Abraham is a partner in Socialmedia.biz. Contact Chris via email, follow him on Twitter and Google Plus or leave a comment below.

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