Community: online vs “real world,” or is it?

April 13, 2014 in Education, Inspiration


One of the things we’re passionate about is community.

It might seem strange to you, that people as transient as we are could be as community minded as we are. It’s something we strive to cultivate wherever we go. One of the perks of being a larger family is that we have a built in tribe; there are 15 unique relationships under our roof alone. Of course one of the pillars of our family culture is hospitality, and we’re continually seeking to include others around our table.

One of the things that I love most about the internet and its ubiquitousness is the exponential expansion of the possibility of community. There are those that believe that the increased connectivity in the virtual world is removing us from “real” face to face community. There is, perhaps, danger of that if a person is prone to extremes, but it has not been our experience.

The thing I enjoy most about virtual connection is the real world relationships that I maintain as a result. I love that grandparents never have to wonder where we are, or if we are okay. I appreciate being able to speak to the handful of people who matter most to me on an almost daily basis, even from the far side of the world. We don’t miss one another nearly as much, and we don’t miss out on the little things that build life together.

Of course it goes much further than that, doesn’t it? Because of social media we can connect with people that we would never have had access to even seven years ago when we were just taking off to travel. All of the people I work with I’ve met online. All of them. When we took off traveling, we knew of just one or two other families who were doing similar things. Today, we’re connected with several groups and hundreds, hundreds, of other families who travel as a way of life. Our kids hang out with friends on several continents and have a peer group of traveling children that makes our way of life seem very “normal” indeed.

I belong to an online group of dozens of mothers of above average sized families. There is comfort and camaraderie in being able to share the difficulties and frustrations as well as just daily life craziness that comes from having more kids than sense. These women, the vast majority of whom I’ve never met, are the people I go to for advice when I’ve got a sick kid, or a minor family crisis, or when I need someone to whine to about hand laundering for six.

My kids maintain their primary friendships via chat, even when we’re physically living in community with the people we love. Any given morning over breakfast I get updates on the families that matter most. Does that take my kids out of their real world and out of their real relationships? Not in the least. I love that they are able to share life with their friends, that their community bleeds in and out of the physical and virtual worlds. This morning, before breakfast, they’d arranged for seven kids to come spend half of the day knee deep in mud exploring the forest.

I would argue that the relationships formed in the virtual world are no less “real” than those made by sharing physical space. An example: Austin & Emmi, siblings that live in Hawaii. Our kids have been online friends and in classes together with these kids for a couple of years. When we hit the ground on Oahu they hit the ground running and were inseparable.

The expansion of community through technology is, to my way of thinking, a benefit to everyone.

I couldn’t even begin to list the people who are dear to us who we have met first online, the innumerable homes we’ve visited in as a result of a social media connection, the support systems that have been formed because there are groups of likeminded individuals coalescing in cyberspace. Some of our favourite “real world” moments have grown out of online interaction.

The traditional definition of community has included people living together in one place. In a way, we now choose who we live together in one place with in the virtual world. Our support systems have grown, and most people now know people almost everywhere. The essence of community is that support, and to me, that’s one of the biggest benefits of our increasingly interconnected world.

  • When my little nephew was born and my Mom and I flew across the continent on a moment’s notice, the man waiting for us at the airport was the result of a call put out to “strangers” on the net.
  • A group of mothers I’d never met drove from all over Wisconsin to have lunch with Hannah and me this fall and to invite us back to the continent.
  • The projects I’m working on right now are almost all in the works with people scattered around the globe.
  •  Gifts and notes of encouragement are exchange in the physical world from folks whose faces I’ve never seen. This month, alone, I’ve gotten four.
  • When we needed to purchase a truck, it was friends we’d met through our blog who provided it.
  • Regularly, our first meal on a new continent is provided by virtual friends, or our last send off before we’re on our way.

Time and again we’ve seen our community rally around folks who are sick, or stranded, or suffering in some way. Just this week we’ve watched love, best wishes and gifts pour in from families all around the planet to lift up the heart of a little boy who’s unexpectedly sick and to encourage his family. He has a face, and a name, and a place in our hearts, even though we’ve never met his family. He’s a member of our community.

Aren’t those the things that are the hallmarks of community?

Working together, meeting physical needs, providing support and encouragement, sharing the hard things in life and making sure people feel special and remembered? 

As I sit typing this Hannah and her teacher, Ryan, are dueling with fiddle and banjo while his son, Brennish, strums along with his guitar, on a sunny New Hampshire afternoon. A very “real world” experience. We found Ryan through his website, eight years ago and he took a very young Hannah under his wing. Now, years later, he instantly made time for her when we found ourselves back in the physical community. These guys are part of our musical community at home and abroad, I love that we can stay connected, I love that the web has braided our lives together and brought us into the same physical space this afternoon. That’s a gift I’d be hard pressed to trade in a less connected existence.

Of course we control the off switch on all of the devices that connect us to the larger world, and I’m a big supporter of using that liberally. There is much to be said for solitude, mental and social quiet, and cultivating the appreciation of one individual person at a time. I’m not a fan of folks being plugged in instead of enjoying the space they’re in, the person they’re with, or the moment we’ve been given. If anything, the connectivity and extended community that has grown up and outward in the past few years has deepened my appreciation for the gift of an individual and the gift of the time given in a relationship. Stacey and I were talking about that was we wandered around The Met, in NYC, a couple of weeks ago. It was our first face to face meeting, and it was fantastic to find that we fell into step philosophically on so many levels. I have such an appreciation for the effort people make to create community, to connect in the ways that matter most, and to put everything else aside to do so. Who travels two hours into the City to have an afternoon with a complete stranger? No one. Stacey was far from a stranger.

I’ve had the great benefit of growing up and living my adult life in a variety of tight knit communities, formed in a variety of ways. I’m committed to building community for my family and for those around us, and for the wanderers who blow through our lives. I’d be interested to hear your experiences, to discuss together the various meanings and our experiences with community. What do you think? What have you learned? How does community life get built or shape your life?