What does it mean to be a member of a community?
We tend to think we know what community is, based from our existing experiences. Community is:
You might notice that faith communities historically fulfill all those definitions of community.
Communities rely on certain traits and practices to be enduring. A flash mob is a kind of community, but it is an ephemeral kind, until you realize you’re meeting up with an engaging in public art or demonstrations with others and grow more enduring connections, or if the flash mob arises from an existing network of people engaged in a shared practice our pursuit together, such as economic change or joyful public art.
Communities are networks of people who share values and figure out how to rely on each other, work fruitfully together, and create more meaningful lives together.
Digital communities function all the same ways. There are digital networks that share ownership, such as maintaining a wikispace, which is an information sharing cooperative. There are digital communities that form activist networks and engage in social change, and digital communities gathered for peer support, creative arts, scientific endeavors, and entertainment.
Communities, like all living networks, express qualities of emergence: they innovate, experiment, and change over time, developing new forms. That is precisely what is happening through social media: people are innovating and connecting in exciting and often wonderful and deeply life enriching ways through these digital tools.
Digital faithing occurs when people create communities of study, communities of spiritual practices, communities of faithful action (especially expressions of generosity & social justice), communities of equipping (administration, creating and sharing resources, encouragement & coaching). These communities may be more traditionally structured and center around websites or congregations, or they may be more emergent in structure arising from spontaneous engagements and network development, and both forms may work together, just as chance encounter and intentional community always have.
Where I most often bump into assumptions is the belief that digital communities cannot be meaningful. The real test of any community is: would your life, the lives of others, and the planet be a worse place if the community did not exist?
Too often, in our consumer and individual-centered culture, we stop at the first part of the question: would my life be worse if this community did not exist? It is a good question, but it neglects the reality that we are all in this together, and our well-being is dependent on each other and on the well-being of this planet. To truly answer that first part of the question, we have to accept that we are dependent on the well-being of the whole.
You might not think you need social media based communities, but a whole lot of people do, as we set about caring for each other across great and small distances, nurture family connections, share news, organize socially and politically, and create new ways to help one another and the world together. As a Unitarian Universalist, I believe there is a moral imperative for people of faith to participate in the well-being of the world, and that means joining and growing, experimenting with and failing at, risking again and succeeding in digital faith community creation, emergence, and endurance.
What communities are you a member of? What does community mean to you? How might you faithfully participate in, create, or sustain community using digital tools?
You can still register for the Minns Lectures March 8-9th, 2013! They’re free!