The meeting of like minds

Some people in the park were asking about you today," remarked my friend.

"What people? Who was asking about me?"

"I was chatting with some of the locals around here, and they heard that someone was moving in up the road. I told them it was you, and they wanted to know all about you," he replied.

'Locals'? It seems I've moved into an area that functions as a "'community', and they know about each other. Surely this can't be true - a community only a few "kilometres from the largest city "in Australia, in our modern, "dehumanised-by-"those-damned-computers society? A community - how quaint.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald ("The Big Picture Show", 21/4/01), Hugh Mackay argues that we are indeed forming communities but we often do so at the expense of debate on wider social issues, such as privatisation, the republic and, the current scapegoat for so many social sins, globalisation. His thesis is that by turning inward to focus on the concept of just my community, especially among "affluent, polite and comfortable suburbs", we are ignoring the wider social agenda, essentially defined by the communities of others.

I'm inclined to agree with his line, but what is particularly interesting is that cyberspace can play good cop and bad cop in this regard. People who are inclined to shun all contact with others can secure their loneliness on the Internet, surfing without meaningful identity or human contact. Equally, though, no matter how bizarre your interests, you'll always find one or more people to share them online, forming a very real and vital community.

In fact, it is easy to argue that the Internet is only about communities. Before widespread public access to the Net, the Internet was a community of academics. Then, before the Net succumbed to advertising and trading, online communities simply appeared like wild-flowers, springing out of expressed common interests. From Pamela Anderson to Orthodox iconography, from Star Trek languages to simians - nothing is too arcane for the Internet.

Even in business, what used to be called simply "workgroup collaboration" has now become "business communities", with companies saving millions of dollars in project management costs by hooking up far-flung staff via message boards and chat rooms. Sort of what Lotus Notes never quite delivered on.

Now, of course, as online operators dabble in the black art of Customer Relationship Management, communities are big business. Marketers love communities. Marketers want to create communities. Communities have similar interests and tastes, the same demographic. It's the old adage: people that meet together, spend together.

And so there are pathetic attempts to create communities of common interest. Amy Jo Kim is a lecturer in Web design at Stanford University in the US and the designer of many high-profile online environments. In her book Community Building on the Web, she talks about strengthening "community bonds through events and rituals", and strategies that "produce a sound social scaffolding, a community architecture from the ground up". Java-fuelled social engineering on the loose!

My least favourite attempts at community building are those wretched online surveys. It seems every commercial Web site has the mandatory row of radio buttons asking for your opinion on the vacuous topic of the day, seemingly in an attempt to get you to return again and again to vote and check the results - and absorb a few more ad impressions in the process. Are our kids getting fatter? Should Nicole Kidman be left alone? Has Bronwyn Bishop changed her hairstyle?

But there are fascinating and worthwhile examples of community relations via the Net. A judge has recently ordered 55 registered sex offenders on probation in Corpus Christi, Texas, to erect signs in their front yards that say "Danger! Registered Sex Offender Lives Here". They must also put bumper stickers on their cars that read, "Danger! Registered Sex Offender in Vehicle". Texan law already requires that these people have their names and photos on the Internet.

Not surprisingly, this ruling has proved to be very contentious, but the local Corpus Christi Caller Times can only publish so many letters to the editor. So, in steps the paper's online poll and forum to give the community a voice (at the time of writing, community opinion is running about 50-50, for and against the judge's order). It is not a fancy online forum, but judging by the comments recorded, it is making a valuable contribution to how a community communicates. Check out the Caller Times at www.caller.com.

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