As I mentioned back in February, closing comments for Lent gave me a lot of insight into the role that the internet plays in my life. I didn’t want to get into too many details in that post since I knew it would lend itself to discussion, so here is the promised Part II.
Back in college I spent a couple of semesters as an anthropology major. I found the study of different peoples and cultures fascinating, and drank up all the material in the courses. One thing that always jumped out to me was that in almost every group of people we studied across time and place, one thing they all had in common were clear, cohesive communities: whether we were studying the ancient peoples of the Fertile Crescent or villages of medieval Europe or modern-day tribes in the jungles of South America or even early 20th century American neighborhoods, one thing almost all these peoples had in common was that they lived around people they knew — the same people, including all their family members — for their whole lives.
I think often about how different modern American life is, particularly for those of us outside of the workforce. Many of us experience the historically new phenomenon of living around strangers: we don’t know many of our neighbors, don’t run into people we know at the grocery store or the post office, don’t live close to immediate (or even extended) family members, etc. If we feel part of any kind of close community at all (e.g. a church group), it is often not people who live close to us, whom we run into casually. As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, other than planned, scheduled meetups, I could probably go a couple of weeks (or maybe months) without running into anyone I know in the course of daily life.
I’ve talked a lot about this phenomenon with friends who are immigrants from places where cohesive communities still exist (e.g. rural France, Mexico, India) and have come up with a lot of thoughts on the subject. And, hey, why have a blog if you can’t write up this sort of stuff and tell the internet about it? So, for your reading pleasure, here is my little theory about social interaction and modern life, based on extensive studies and research (read: I thought about it while washing dishes):
I feel like I need four different types of social interaction (broadly defined) on a regular basis. In order of importance, they are:
- Quality interaction with others — forming new friendships and strengthening existing relationships with friends and family members
- Casual interactions with people I know where my expected participation level is flexible
- An awareness of the events and concerns of my community as a whole
- Simply running into people I know in the course of daily activity, even if we don’t have much direct interaction
I feel like regularly having opportunities for each of these types of social activity is ideal for my psychological wellbeing; and, looking at human history, it would seem that we’re designed to have these things as natural parts of our lives. Yet here in my part of suburbia, I only have #1 (and even that is with great effort). So what am I to do about #2-4?
I remember back in those anthropology classes, I noticed that a common community setup was that there would be a central area where people, especially women, would gather as part of their daily work, e.g. a tribe might have one community fire pit for cooking, or there would be one spot on the river where the women would all gather to do the washing. In particular, one visual that stuck with me was that of the village water well: in some long-forgotten textbook I read the description of a tribal village that had one central well where the women would go to get the family’s water. There was some sort of central oven nearby, and this area, of course, became a bustling hub of social activity.
By virtue of having the community water well area, women didn’t have to separate their lives into “work time” and “socializing time” in order to get needs #2-4 met. Socializing would be interwoven into their daily tasks, rather than something that had to be sought as an entirely separate endeavor. I’ve often imagined how helpful this must have been: when you arrived at the well, you could listen to the conversations and jump in if you were feeling talkative, or hang back and mostly listen if you were feeling tired or reserved. Unlike the carefully-orchestrated playdates of today, casual interaction could be just that: casual. You had an opportunity for social interaction, to hear what others in your community were talking about, without an obligation to be “on” if you weren’t feeling up to it. Ever since I read about that village well I’ve often wished that we had something similar today, a community gathering place that would meet our desire for casual interactions, to fill needs #2-4 in my list above.
This, I believe, is where the internet can be a great thing.
In the past few years since the explosion of blogs, I’ve come to feel like my laptop is my village well. In between loading the dishwasher and vacuuming the living room, I can stop by the well and see what folks are buzzing about. Simcha’s children are seeing if they can sustain life on Easter candy alone, Ann is finding beauty and deep symbolism in an ordinary task, BooMama is having technical problems like mine, Abigail shares a lesson she learned about parenting, Danielle Bean reflects on being a mom and an introvert, Veronica Mitchell is undoubtedly vowing to never mention Esperanto again (ever), and Maggie’s son still won’t take naps.
In a five-minute scan of some of the blogs I read, I can get a quick pulse for what’s going on with women who have similar values and lives to mine. It’s wonderfully unpredictable: sometimes I might be challenged intellectually, other times I might be moved to tears, and other times I might laugh out loud. I see the familiar names in the comments at other blogs, often people whose blogs I follow as well. I can join in the conversation by leaving a comment, or just sit back and listen. In addition to following others’ stories, I can start a conversation of my own by writing a post for my own blog and inviting comments, or I could just check email to see what friends and family have to say today.
This is, ultimately, what I was getting at in my last post on the subject: for a lot of us, I think the internet is the closest thing we have to the community water well. It’s not necessarily a good place to try to form deep friendships, but it is a place where we can quickly, casually throw out the question “You ever have days like this?” in the midst of our daily work; a place where we can just listen to what’s going on with other people we “know” when we’re feeling too tired to make conversation ourselves; a way we can feel like we have a pulse on what’s going on in a larger community throughout each day.
To be sure, I don’t think it’s a replacement for real-life friendships, and I don’t think that virtual communication can or should ever replace fostering quality friendships with people whom you see in person. It’s not even a perfect replacement for a thriving community center. But, when you have three kids in diapers and you’re the only person on your suburban street who’s home during the day and you never see anyone you know at the grocery store, there are some days when it’s all you’ve got in terms of opportunities for casual chitchat with other adults. And on those days you feel really, really blessed to have your own little water well sitting on your kitchen counter.
So those are my little musings on the subject…what do you think?
UPDATE: A part II to this post is here.