Social Networks vs. Communities

Social Networks vs. Communities November 17, 2017

Here’s a little video from the Beeb about one of the zillions of pseudo-“communities” spawned by the internet:

One of the unexpected effects of social media has been that it makes it possible for isolated, ignorant, paranoid, and dumb people to network in such a way as to create pseudo-“communities” tightly walled off from the human family and utterly immune to the blandishments of reality. The term for this in Hell is “divide and conquer”. It is a powerful toxin against both a healthy civic life and against the Catholic understanding of the Body of Christ. Catholics had better get going thinking about how to counter this because we are awash in a great tide of folly.

One essay that perceptively looks at the distinction between communities and social networks is Brett and Kate McKay’s “Communities Vs. Networks: To Which Do You Belong?”  It explains a ton about why online “community” promises to feed and always starves.  It marks out five key differences between communities and networks:

  1. Networks Are Large and Anonymous; Communities Are Small and Intimate
  2. Networks Are Artificial, Top-Down; Communities Are Organic, Bottom-Up
  3. Networks Encourage Passivity and Consumption; Communities Require Action and Contribution
  4. Networks Can Be Location Independent; Communities Are Attached to a Place
  5. Networks Divide a Person Into Parts; Communities Nurture the Whole Person

The McKay’s then conclude:

So beware of false tribes, which come to you in community’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening networks.

Learning How to Live in a Community Again

While I’ve certainly put the idea of networks through the ringer in this post, I don’t want folks to get the idea that they’re evil. They can serve a good purpose. They’re good for moving ahead in business, sharing information, raising money, and even meeting acquaintances that later turn into deeper relationships. They’re just not a replacementfor true communities. Unfortunately we treat them as such. The result is a world where it is as if people eat only junk food, and don’t understand why their bodies are wasting away. Communities provide us with vital physical “nutrients” that we all need to thrive and be happy.

While it’s difficult to find “pure” tribe-like communities in our modern age, it is definitely possible to cultivate a greater community ethos in the groups you already participate in. As mentioned above, it’s better to not think of communities vs. networks as an either/or proposition, but rather as a spectrum. Churches, neighborhoods, schools, gyms, clubs, and so on can be more like networks or more like communities. Here are a few suggestions to move the ticker towards the latter:

Shoot for small. We’re made to run in tribes of around 150 people. When looking to join a church, deciding what school to send your kids to, or even joining a gym, keep that number in mind. Join groups where you’re able to know every other member by name.

Break larger groups into smaller ones. Belonging to a larger network isn’t a bad thing, if you can find a way to create smaller, more intimate groups within it. Megachurches, for example, often encourage members to join one of their many small groups in order to establish more close-knit bonds than are possible during their huge Sunday worship services.

Create you own tribes. Don’t just be a joiner. The best way to find a community is to start your own tribe. And when you do, don’t take the easy way out of borrowing a preformed, predefined structure; create your group’s culture from the ground up. People often ask me to start an official Art of Manliness men’s group. I have no plans to, because the result would be a top-down network, not a true community. It’s the latter that men need. You don’t need me to show you how to make your own fraternity of men — figure it out together with your brothers.

Get involved. The more passive people are, the more a potential community devolves into a network. For example, many people today treat public schools as a consumer transaction; I’ve paid my taxes, and once I drop my kid off at the curb, my part of the deal is done. Instead, you could volunteer and get involved with the school, get to know the teachers and the other families, and boost the school’s feeling of community. Same thing with your neighborhood — start actively finding ways to get to know the people on your block.

Meet physically. There are churches out there that offer online “services” where you watch the sermon online, give money online, and even pray and chat with other members online. The intention is good — bringing the bread of life to those who otherwise might not get it at all. But such a set-up only feeds one part of the soul; their need for community will remain famished. Online interactions can be fun and convenient — a supplement to our lives — but they can’t substitute for in-person meetings.

Share your whole self. The more your group encourages people to bring their whole self, rather than just a slice of it, the more the group feels like a community. For example, many corporate globo-gyms are soulless networks, but small powerlifting gyms often feel like communities, as the members not only know each other’s workout habits, but about their families and jobs, too.

Be prepared to sacrifice. Oftentimes people lament that they want to be part of communities, but what they really mean is that they want to enjoy the benefits of communities without having to deal with any of their responsibilities and hassles. They want to get, but not give. Being part of a community means not only taking from the pot, but putting into it; if you’re not willing to help out fellow members when they’re in need, and deal with the annoyances inherent to any close-knit group, you’ll never move beyond existing in a network.

Live by family. These final two suggestions will likely be controversial, but I would argue that they truly represent the best ways to be part of a community.

The heart of community is family; not just the nuclear family, but extended family. For centuries people lived near their parents and grandparents, along with their uncles, aunts, and cousins. They were your go-to, tight-knit support group. In our present age, one’s parents and siblings are strung out all across the country. You see them once a year at Christmas, and keep track of each other through your Facebook updates. Family has become just another network.

I have long struggled with the fact that while I’d like to live somewhere that allowed more opportunities for outdoor recreation, like Colorado or Vermont, both Kate and my parents and siblings are here in Oklahoma. I have long pondered which is better: living in a place you love, or living by family? While I still pine for the mountains, for now, family wins hands down. Our kids adore their grandparents (and vice versa!), and they’ll get to romp around with their cousins throughout their youth. They’ll get to feel like part of a familial community, rather than nodes in a disconnected network.

Some people relish being far from their families, because then they don’t have to participate in the inevitable hassle of familial drama. But that hassle is part and parcel of our humanity.

Don’t move very frequently. In order to form a community, you need to live and interact with the same people for a long time — to go through a myriad of ups and downs together. People will never know your whole self if you trade them in for new friends every two years. Community requires being rooted in a single place for an extended period of time.

The likelihood of 20-somethings moving to another state has fallen 40% since the 1980s. Various reasons for why young people are staying put have been floated: some posit that the trauma of the recession has made them risk-averse, that Facebook has made them less adventurous, or that they’re just plain unambitious. As such, my fellow Millennials have been derided as the “Go-Nowhere Generation.”

I’d venture to say there’s another reason for the trend that everyone else seems to have missed: my generation, having grown up socially famished in the vacuous network, now rightly craves the nourishment of true community.

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