When I published a post called “Community, Connection & Loneliness” in late July, my nephew, Tim, had some insightful comments and at that time I asked if he would think about writing a post. I am thrilled that today’s post is a guest post from him. Tim Brown is the son of my brother Ed and sister-in-law, Susanna and is one of those people who I never feel I have enough time with, always thinking there is more to discuss or talk about. Take a look at the post and see what you think. Join the discussion in the comment section.
The growth of the internet has done for community what the invention of the buffet line did for eating cheap Chinese food. I’m sure that back in the dark ages if I wanted to eat Chinese I would have to choose between sweet & sour chicken and mushu pork and then decide whether I wanted it over fried rice or steamed rice. But now, with the fantastic invention of the all-you-can-eat buffet, choices have become a relic of the past. I can have it all, in quantity! I can choose the exact foods, and ratios of foods that best characterize my desires.
This is what social life on the internet is like. I can fill my circles, friends list and twitter feed with the people who I most desire to hear from. Distance is not a barrier to social and intellectual interaction. I can customize what I consume to best match my life. On a single screen I can view photos from my sister in Singapore, reflections on news stories that interest me, and food specials at my favorite restaurants. I am fully able to filter out those topics, opinions, or people who may be distasteful to me, guaranteeing the purity of my experience. I’ve also recently discovered that the rules of fiction and reality no longer bar me from the social life I want, as twitter allows me to have daily interactions with Lord Voldemort, President Bartlett, and Homer Simpson! My online community can be shaped to truly fit the person who I am.
I recently served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic, and my social life could not have presented a greater contrast. My neighbors down there would definitely not have been “suggested” on Facebook based on mutual interests or connections. They were semi-literate Spanish speakers who spent much of the day talking about pigs, coffee trees, and the weather. I was a university educated English speaker who liked talking politics and theology. Not a lot of common ground. Yet we were each others neighbors, and in a setting without electricity or cell phone reception your neighbors are your community. No social buffet here. I had to eat what was being served.
Cultivating these relationships was not easy. There were language barriers to overcome, cultural expectations to negotiate, and misunderstandings to remedy. This struggle to build relationships despite our differences became a shared experience of discovery, and caused a lot of laughter. From this journey of humor and education came a sense of community that I value very deeply. These relationships, built on a foundation of struggle, provided a satisfaction that my online community does not.
The same is true of my family. I did not choose them in the Facebook sense. I was born to them, and have cultivated relationships with them through hard work, shared experience, laughter, and many missteps. Yet despite frustrations and huge differences, my relationships with family members are among the most satisfying I have ever experienced with other human beings.
Why is it that I am so unsatisfied by my customizable online community, but fulfilled by the struggle of real life relationships? I think it is because un-customizable relationships force me to grow. When I choose my community based solely on mutual interest I am not required to really learn anything, and I am not challenged to practice patience, grace, or love in as meaningful a way. By encountering something seemingly foreign or distasteful, seeking to understand it, and embracing compromise I learn humility (as does the person I am interacting with), and humility is the basis of true community. It’s satisfying for the same reason that a home cooked meal tastes so much better than an all-you-can-eat buffet, and always will.
Bloggers Note: Tim Brown served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic from 2008-10, where he lived without electricity, commuted on horseback, and met his wife Kim. His musings on Peace Corps life can be read here. He is currently pursuing a Master’s in International Affairs at Marquette University in Milwaukee, and contemplating where the tide of life will carry him to next.