Is “Online Community” an Oxymoron?

L.A. is a lot like the blogosphere. It is sprawling and overwhelming, though manageable if you find your niche. It’s full of pockets and localized communities where ideas and ideologies are reinforced in insulated communities. And like L.A., the blogosphere can be very, very impersonal.

One thing I’ve struggled with during my first year of blogging is the ever present dichotomy of, on one hand, feeling more connected to people than ever before, and on the other feeling a bit isolated from the “real” world. Do you other bloggers feel that tension? It is a very personal thing to share one’s thoughts, but also a very strange thing to do it from so veiled a position. Are humans really meant to be so unrestricted in their ability to mass communicate?

I certainly feel more empowered and willing to say pretty much whatever I want when I write for my blog, which is totally great but also a total misrepresentation of non-blogging life. I wouldn’t dare say some of the things I’ve written on this blog in person to very many people, though that doesn’t mean I don’t believe them. Which, of course, begs the question: what is more “real”? Self-constructed, though thoroughly free-wheeling and uncensored online discourse, or co-constructed, slightly-more-tactful in person communication? I want to say the former, but large parts of me feel that the latter is truer, that it is in the unsaid presences and awkward cadences of simultaneous communication between people that the most important things reveal themselves.

Of course, by saying this, I’d have to say that Martin Luther reading the words of Paul in his isolated monk’s chambers is somehow inferior (in terms of meaning-making) to an insipid dorm room conversation about predestination, and I’m not prepared to go that far. But I think I might be talking about two different things here: communication as arbiter of ideas and communication as creator of relationships. Perhaps one method (the written or otherwise recorded word transmitted impersonally) is superior in terms of elucidating the meaning of abstract ideas and theories, while the other method (in person community and communication) serves better the development of emotional and relational existence. In platitudinal terms: one is better for the head, the other for the heart.

This may sound obvious, but the mainstream of communication theory has heretofore been unable to reconcile the two “purposes” of communication (in William Carey’s terms: the “transmission” vs. “ritual”). Traditional scholarship views communication as either a way to communicate things and ideas from one place or person to another (emphasis on what we communicate), or as a symbolic process of shared meaning (emphasis on the act of communication). With the Internet, though, I think we have to reexamine all of these things; we have to re-conceptualize communication itself.

More presently to my concerns as a blogger: should I view it mainly as a community and value it as such (for the visitors, the comments, the entertaining back-and-forth, regardless of how productive), or should I look at it is a place for ideas to be born and bred? It is interesting to wonder: with all the thoughts and ideas bandied about on the blogosphere every day, is there any resultant progress in the overall level of human understanding? Has discourse been furthered? Or maybe it has made things worse for actual productive discourse? I’d hope it’s not the latter. I’ll continue blogging in the wishful understanding that it is the former.