Real, Virtual Communities: A Response to Brian Williams

5 minute read


I was watching MSNBC’s election coverage of the South Dakota and Montana primaries on June 3rd, and heard Brian Williams make a very interesting statement. He was talking about how surprised he was to see the resurgence of political rallies in this age, and said that people his age thought the whole idea of the rally died in 1968. He then, almost wistfully, stated that this election is showing how we still need a physical community even though we are all digitally connected 24/7. I’ll quote from the transcript:

WILLIAMS: What has happened, in this age of YouTube and instant communication 24/7, that people now, more than ever, want that tactile touch of the candidate? […] And one more thing about community — there’s a lot of talk about various Internet communities, but, you know, it’s been theorized that that’s not a community at all, that what you’re seeing there tonight, that, 17,500 people in an arena, with an elbow in your face, that’s community. A New York subway train is community, a ball game in Ames, Iowa, on a Friday night, that, maybe, with all that we have, and with all the distractions open to us in the Internet — and I’m doing the same thing on my computer here — that maybe there is a yearning on the part of all of us to still get together, feel something together…

I think that such statements mischaracterize the Internet and the whole concept of the “Virtual Community,” which is a rather nebulous topic to begin with. First, the pundits on MSNBC and everywhere else have been saying that one of Barack Obama’s greatest strengths is his Internet-based base. How many of those people do you think would have been at that rally had they not had the Internet? How many of those people are Obama supporters because someone forwarded them’s Yes We Can video, or saw one of Obama’s many speeches that are all on YouTube? How many saw their friends joining one of the hundreds of Facebook groups about him and decided to check this guy out? How many of them were there that night specifically because got an e-mail from Obama’s campaign, telling them when and where the rally was? How many people without Internet access were called on the telephone by volunteers, who logged into Obama’s website and got a short list of phone numbers to call?

Now, I’m tempted to call the whole concept of the Virtual Community a myth that died with 3d goggles. It is an incredibly easy argument to make that the Internet facilitates real-world communities. That is, the Internet makes it easier for people to meet up in real life and form real communities. However, the number of people who have truly connected with a group they only know on the Internet is significant. I personally found a community in a text-based fantasy-themed MUD (think Dungeons and Dragons except entirely virtual) when I was an awkward prepubescent.

I’ve known many others who feel the same way – I even saw a documentary on Discovery Health that talked, in part, about a virtual community for persons with a certain rare medical condition. They cared for each other deeply, even though most of them had never met. This is a different kind of community than the one Williams talks about. Sure, a group of strangers can find a community in a throng of people, if they know that everyone around them is pushing towards a goal that they also share. A sports game is a perfect example of that. However, I think that the type of community he identified in the Barack Obama rally is more virtual than he lets on. And the broader political communities formed around both sides of issues like abortion, war, immigration, and so on, are even more virtual. However, this is not because they are Internet-based – they were virtual when DARPA was first seeding money to universities to build what would become the Internet.

Contrast these communities to more traditional ones: a workplace, a church, a civic organization, and so forth. These political communities have far less centralized structure and lack a geographic locus. There are no complex rituals, rites, or dues that one has to pay in order to become a member – wearing a button or even standing in an auditorium at a certain time is enough to constitute someone as a member. You can’t point to these communities and say really anything definite. Their size, ideals, and demographics are widely in flux. The only thing all of these people have in common are a shared purpose, and they probably disagree about the particulars. Real communities with organization, leaders, and a geographic focus may precipitate out of this broader virtual community, but they are not fully representative. These smaller, easier-to-define communities are also not as lasting, flickering in and out of existence.

In the end, I think that communities can be both real and virtual. One of my biggest beliefs about virtuality is that it is, contrary to popular opinion, quite real. Williams talked about people wanting to really feel something these days. I think they do when they are in these communities, and this is because we have become more intertwined with the Internet, not in spite of it.