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.

2 responses to “Is “Online Community” an Oxymoron?

  1. I’ve been reading you for a couple of months, now. I keep a blog myself. I’m not as faithful in writing timely posts, and you’ll likely NEVER read the word “platitudinal” on my site.

    However, I do feel you tension. I’ll write a little thought, and then expand on it, and before long I’ve typed a sermon. As I read it back and click “Save & Publish,” I get the distinct feeling that I’m standing on a cliff (maybe wearing a trash bag, maybe not) next to Natalie Portman, Zach Braff and some other dude screaming into a void.

    Once in a while, one of my friends will read and comment, and then we’ll have a discussion offline. And THAT is where I believe God shows up. He likes to stay in that synapse between two people. He’s that charge of relationship that’s either years of love, or the potential for years of love.

    Blogging’s nice for an intellectual/spiritual exhaling now and again, but if you want something real and meaningful, you gotta get away from the screen (or the book, or the stone tablet). God’s Word is for us to read, digest, and then go out and live. Blogging shouldn’t be any different, the way I see it.

    Anyway… I’m looking forward to your Dark Knight review.

  2. I’ve been blogging for about the same time you have, and I’ve grappled with a lot of the same questions too. I can’t speak too specifically to all the complex questions posed, but I will say that the reason I blog is because I want to share my life with the world in a way that is impossible in real life. The things I post on my blog (reviews, trailers, random extended thoughts that I have) are things that I think about and discuss in real life, but I would say the way they appear on my blog is truer form – because, like you, I find myself saying a lot of things on my blog that you would never in a million years catch me saying in real life. I have all these thoughts in real life, sometimes even in a discussion with a person, but I don’t share them, and instead just post them online later.I think the advent of the internet, and moreso blogging now, has unleashed new potential within human beings – the sheer anonymity of the internet is extremely daunting and mind-boggling but so incredibly liberating that I feel a small rush every time I post a new post or see that some complete stranger has commented on my page.

    I also think blogging/internet has created a new kind of anonymity that’s different from before, because you can have your face, name, and place of residence (I use my real name online – Brandon, I even have a youtube account where I post video reviews, and my blog shows that I live in Seattle and has a picture) and still feel somehow anonymous and special at the same time.

    Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly down, I just wonder, “what’s the point?” I think another part of that, though, is my blog has considerably less traffic than yours, and so the lack of a solid audience is even more apparent. I ask myself, “Why write these random thoughts online (reviews, trailers, and so on) that only a few people will read and even fewer will care about?” I never really come up with a straight answer, except to say that I blog because I can. In some weird way, it makes me feel like I’m contributing, and that’s a good feeling. My opinions are out there on the internet for anyone to see ever, and when you really think about it, that’s an incredibly weird thing that has become so commonplace that we don’t even think about it anymore.

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