Communities: Online and Offline

Communities were considered for many years as being defined either by national, ethnic, religious or some other fairly clearly delineated identity, a specific geographic location, or sometimes a combination of both. Therefore, we had, for example, the Irish Traveller community, the Irish community in Britain, or simply the Ringsend community in Dublin, who were defined solely by their geographic location. With the advent of the internet, whose geographic reach is worldwide, we have the strange situation where geographic specificity is much less important in the formation and definition of communities, although many online communities mirror offline communities in terms of the people involved and serve more as an extension of, or conduit for, offline activities rather than a totally new communal entity.

Personally, I wouldn’t consider myself to be part of any online community that isn’t an extension of an offline community of which I am a member. In fact, the only online community which I would consider myself to be a member of is the group of creative multimedia classmates who constitute the largest homogenous group within my group of friends on Facebook and, to a lesser extent, on Twitter.

As teenagers appear to gain more autonomy and freedom in a nominal sense there does appear, strangely enough, to be less of an engagement on their part with freedom in the sense of an ability to move around and go to different places and engage in autonomous physical exertion. Perhaps there is even a narrowing down of the options open to young people in terms of places they can go to ‘hang around’ and have a physical space that is not governed by adults. In this context the internet becomes a surrogate for the traditional places that previous generations hung out such as pool halls or street corners. The premium in technological savvy that many young people have over their parents also makes the internet a parent-free zone or at least one in which they are not under constant scrutiny. The popularity of online gaming also makes the games console the portal to an online community that probably to some degree replaces the coming together in previous generations of groups of young people to play supposedly less sophisticated, but more physically beneficial, games such as chasing.

However, there is probably an initial tendency to focus on the negatives associated with teen ‘hanging out’ online, such as the deprivation of physical exercise that accompanies engagement with web-based media. There are perhaps non-physical benefits and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation carried out a study of some 800 teenagers and found that “spending time online is essential for young people to pick up the social and technical skills they need to be competent citizens in the digital age.”

Personally, I feel I spend too much time hanging around online. I switch on my computer to do college work and I just ‘drop in’ to see who’s on Facebook and what’s the latest news or chatter. Before I know it, a half hour of my time is gone and I’m a half an hour closer to the next assignment deadline with little or nothing done. I suppose I should feel appreciation for the glow of online human proximity and mutual hanging around – if we’re all going to waste our time it’s probably best that we do it together.

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