Sunday, November 14, 2010

Internet Communities and the Kindness of Strangers

I'm going to take a break from my usual political carping (tho, God knows, there is plenty to carp about) and talk about community. I think that human beings must have some innate compulsion to form community, somehow, in anyway they can—whether they are trying to or not.

I belong to a Macintosh forum. On-line, of course. Originally it was formed around a desire to find good deals on the web, particularly computer stuff, and to help each other with any computer related problems we had. Over time it morphed into something more extensive. Some have estimated that on our forum lately, only about 10 to 15% of our postings have to do with computers or software. What is the rest? In recent weeks someone has posted about a death in the family. Someone else broke a bone for the first time and wanted advice from others who had. Another posted a long and affecting story about the auctioning off of his  late grandfather's belongings. There are the requisite, to any forum, animal stories and pictures. People make jokes, people make fights. For a while there was a mini-community within the forum around the "Lost" series. Someone had a car accident. Another person got laid off (we've had a few of these) and posted about it for advice and sympathy, which he got. One member expressed thanks to another forum member for advice which helped him get a new job. Another wanted to know if someone had advice about getting around in Italy. We exchange recipes. We know who had kids, who had lost a pet or family member, who is looking for a car, a house, a computer.

I know that one member had an accident, almost died. Another had her stomach stapled for a weight problem, another collects guns and is likely to eat out-of-date food he finds in his house (he is our "can I still eat this?" guru). Yet another raises gerbils. A woman on the forum has snakes for pets. I know who had an an auto accident in Hawaii. I've learned about the beers from small English breweries from someone who lives in England. I know who is having good weather or bad weather, and where they live. We have a "Free First Monday" every month where folks can list computer parts, software, peripherals, etc that they are willing to send to anyone who wants them for the cost of postage. We learn about each others dreams, problems, tragedies and joys. Sometimes we get carried away and start arguing. Some of us are good at stopping or settling those arguments.

Which brings me, finally, to the reason I'm writing about this. We have had some deaths in our community. Several years ago, a much-liked tho somewhat unstable member committed suicide. We were shocked and sent our condolences to the family, who were blown away by the love and concern of a community they didn't know about. There was another suicide last year, a woman who met her husband through the forum, and tho they finally separated, there remained a strong bond between them. He notified us of her death and we were there for him with sympathy and support.

Last week one of our older, wiser members died, of an incurable pulmonary disease. She went by the handle of "AlphaDog," I guess to make sure her dog Louie knew his place. She was one of those who usually had good advice for us, who often was able to clear the air in an argument, who helped people. I discovered a couple year ago that we both shared a Slovak heritage, and we exchanged private messages about that and Slovak food. When news of her death spread, over 150 people expressed their sorrow on the forum. Everyone had been touched in some way by Beth (her real name), yet almost no one—only two or three— of our members had actually met her. Many had shared private messages with her. Some had gotten advice from her which helped them in some personal problem. One member wrote about how she had helped him buy presents for his children at a difficult time in his life, and all she wanted back was to know how the kids liked the presents. You could almost see the tears of grief rolling down his cheeks as he wrote. Again, they never met in person and knew each other only by their relationship as forum members.

Beth knew of her condition a year ago, but didn't broadcast it. Many of us knew she had a problem, but only a couple knew how serious it was. She seldom alluded to it. The most direct mention of it I saw was four months ago when she wrote in response to a post by one of our members who was concerned because he had just been told he had a heart murmur. She advised him to enjoy and live every day to the fullest, saying " My days are numbered - literally, although we don't quite know what that number is, except that it's not too many. I've been told to arrange for Hospice services and to get all of my affairs in order. I have. But I absolutely refuse to sit around and worry about what day I'm going to die."
 Good advice for everybody.

Beth was one of the most remarkable people on the forum, but there are a lot of remarkable people there. People who will argue with you one day and the next give you sympathy for a loss, or advice for a problem. Often someone would say "I can help. Send me a private message." Is there something special about us? Are Mac users nicer people (I'd like to think so, but I know it's not true.)

No, I think that a community forms around a group of people who meet or communicate frequently and for a significant period of time. Many of us have been in this group for years, and our individual postings number in the thousands. Your community can be "real," as in church or a special activity, or it can be "virtual," like ours. I have to wonder if there is any difference between those two, other than the method of meeting. They both have the possibility of help, advice, humor, or succor in time of need.

I hope you all have something like this in your lives.

That's all I have for you tonight.

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