Let me tell you a story: Recently, a friend of mine told me how he needed help moving a sofa. There was someone who he knew online, and their relationship had spilled over into the real world because they lived nearby one another. But he couldn’t muster the nerve to ask for a hand because their relationship was so niche-based that it just didn’t seem appropriate to push it beyond that niche set of interests.
There’s a lot to be said for online communities, the “connections” they offer us, and how they factor into our moder social lives. But if you think about, before social media, communities centered aroumd physical space. Whether they were neighbourhoods or community centres, the were anchored to a geographical location, and couldn’t exist without them.
And something that’s interesting about these “organic communities” is that they accomodated differences better than do online communities. Take the neighbourhood: with the neighbourhood, we make a community because we live near each other, do business with one another, and have generational and family ties that bond us together. Families will have been part of a neighbourhood for x-amount of generations, and that shared history is a big part of what ties them together — for good or ill.
With these “organic comminuties,” it wasn’t shared personal interests that held people together. Rather, community members had all different kinds of interests (professions, sports, hobbies, etc.), and that vast array of interests made for a more colourful, diverse community. People were sharing a space, and that shared space took precedence over their differences. Your own personal interests didn’t matter as much as your physical ties to other community members.
And I believe, for the most part, that that dynamic fostered a more tolerant and less egocentric ethos than we find in online communities — which, in turn, led to deeper, more nuanced relationships between community members.
You see, online communities are driven by common interests and not by shared space. We come together and connect online because we share one, common interests. And the result, I think, is that the relationships we form with other online community members are more shallow. Just as Google might be turning us into “pancake people” by getting us out of the habit of learning and remembering, social media might be turning us into “pancake people” by coaxing us into trading up deep, naunced relationships with a few people for shallow, uni-dimensional relationships with many people.
I think this is why online networks get so excited about events such as Podcamps and TweetUps: it forces them into a shared space, and lends the relationship a bit more legitimacy. But even that shared space is ephemeral. You only share it for a limited time, you’re not in each other’s face in the same way, and you’re not force to push one another’s boundaries beyond your shared interests. In fact, these events are so few and far between that, despite sharing a physical space, your interactions tend to focus only on your shared interests.
It’s in this sense that I’m hoping RoadCamp will be a kind of “social (media) experiment.” By putting a couple dozen geeks into a relatively confined space for 3 days with no real escape (i.e. personal space), we’re going to be really pushing those personal boundaries. We’ll be forced to connect with each other on a much more nuanced level, and confront how we all have interests and perspectives that are completely alien to one another.
A lot of us blogger and tweeters like to quip that we’re social media rock starts. Well, we’re hoping that RoadCamp will be precisely the kind of experience that both tears bands apart and inspires them to do some of their greatest work — to put to the test whether we’re just another melee of one-hit-wonders, or really do have any of the kind of staying-power that bands like U2, The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith have demonstrated, decade over decade.