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Thoughts About Community

Half the summer’s gone, and not a line of code. I’m perfectly fine with that; I haven’t coded since late May and it’s been a nice break.

So I’m going to work on the next big thing for two or three hours a day, and keep the tasks and goals small, the code clean and documented, and see where it takes me.

I have the luxury of time right now. But most of my day will be spent either outside around the lake, or reading, or researching grant proposals for Lancaster Community Gardens, which is my full-time work for the rest of the month, and a great application of my time.

Working in real-world communities over the past 6 months has really sharpened my perspective about online communities, and they both continue to fascinate me. Watching the relationships evolve in both has been really fulfilling in itself, especially the ones that directly involve me.

On Wednesday I had meetings with two people I met through and dinner with another, and on Thursday had a dinner with someone from the gardens.

Much more is communicated in person at the gardens than online at the blog; facial expressions, gestures, proximity, chuckles, random conversations organized around nothing in particular except the occasional project.

But the online connection can lead to the offline connection, right? Yet rarely have I met someone online, then met them offline and been in nearly as free an environment as has developed in the gardens. And that’s what it is–an environment.

You can really get a sense for a person’s character and personality simply by observing; do they show up, do they step up to help on projects, are they just in it for their own plot or do they work the community plots, do they help others, do they carry water for others, or fix the hole in the fence, show up early and stay late, or just tend their plot and head home, do they volunteer ideas or just offer complaints.

potluck dinner @ LCG

Over time you can get some of the same sense about people in the online community; are they helpful or do they just leave a comment; are they self-promotional or really responding to the topic; do they answer questions or ask them; do they react with conflict and bullying, or do they accommodate other views? 

I can’t say that any online community has impacted me nearly as much as the community gardens. Or changed how I see myself in the world, or how I take each day. Maybe it’s part of some broader personal transformation, but it’s somewhat difficult to see whether the garden project is a cause or an effect. I’m thinking it’s both.

The lessons aren’t complete by any means; I’ll need time to experience more, learn more, and maybe develop some conclusions. One conclusion I hope I don’t develop is this: that we should try to improve online communities such that we spend more time there.

We shouldn’t.

Online communities should be like Meetup–facilitating offline connection as much as possible as the primary goal. Yes, you can argue that proximity matters, and that you’ll meet people online that you will never see in person. Got that. But we live in real physical time and space with others–that’s our primary life. I hope.

I’d like to conclude the opposite–that we should spend as little time online as possible, and as much as possible in real-world communities, with open hearts and minds, strengthening each of our communities through the quality and number of connections and interactions among us.

This week the first of my tomatoes–my only likely crop this summer–will start to ripen (the slacker approach to gardening doesn’t quite work for more sensitive plants) .

I’ll clear the weeds of my second bed and prep it for a late planting of something, while listening to my neighbor humming and randomly talking about growing, and watching the fireflies rise as the sun sets.

If I had to choose between online and offline…well, it’s not even close.

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