Virtual Strength: How the Internet Fosters Community

June 1, 2014
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People are more mobile than ever; communities and jobs are more fluid, and relationships are taking on new shapes. While we are more globally connected, we are feeling ever more alienated and desperate for rootedness, connection, and community. For those of us in the expanding Zeitgeist of virtual communities, a number of questions require consideration:

  • How do people retain both their deep connections and the casual ones that enable the migration of ideas?
  • How do virtual communities affect our humanity and relationships?
  • Is commitment to physical place important?
  • What do we gain and what do we lose through so much mobility?

I’ve spent most of the past fourteen years living in Israel and working for American educational institutions. At both Camp Ramah in Wisconsin (as founding co-director of its Northwoods Kollel) and at Mechon Hadar (as director of alumni affairs and recruitment), the essence of my position was intellectually and pastorally oriented community organizing. With the emergence of the Internet as the culture’s central information medium and hub for social organization, I found myself operating on new terrain — working in many places and nowhere. Yeshivat Hadar, for example, may be housed in New York, but the community it serves and represents — Jews interested in rigorous, literate, communal Torah life in egalitarian contexts — spans a far greater distance. While that might foster a network of kindred spirits, does it create community?

Spoiler alert: yes and no. We have an opportunity and challenge today to maximize the ways in which virtual organizations enhance community life while doing some serious, creative, adaptive thinking about how to nurture physical, local communities without smothering mobility.

In some ways, the kinds of fellowship and intimacy forged and nurtured virtually tend to be richer than those found exclusively in face-to-face contexts. And virtual communities are more democratic and inclusive and, consequently, more substantive. Conversations in threads and wall posts on Facebook and other social media circulate information and perspectives more efficiently and inclusively than messaging that takes place solely on the ground. There are several structural reasons for this:

  • We can maintain the feel of a conversation’s urgency in real time and yet we can respond slowly — with more time to think and digest before speaking;
  • We can eliminate barriers that preclude shy people from sharing their insights;
  • We can include individuals who are socially isolated because of geography, economics, homebound caretaking responsibilities (e.g., parents of young children), or restrictions on their freedom of movement by others;
  • We can limit or block the voices of aggressive interlocutors who too easily dominate social settings in person.

Moreover, virtual communities sustain relationships when they need to grow the most but are at most risk of dissolving — when individuals move away and discover new insights ready to circulate and prevent communities from becoming intellectual silos. Take a biblical example: When they first meet, Moshe and Yitro are drawn together as strangers and kindred spirits. But only later, when they reunite and see one another, could Yitro learn of God’s ways with Israel and Moshe learn about Yitro’s community organization wisdom. The reuniting was essential to community growth, but difficult to achieve; too often, by the time it happens, if ever, people have lost the social rhythms needed to unlock and share their new knowledge. Today, many of our face-to-face relationships are immeasurably enhanced because connections that enable getting back together are better maintained while we are apart.

Virtual communities also enable the retention of our more creative members. During my tenure at Camp Ramah, I would encourage our brightest counselors not to return every summer. I felt it would raise the camp’s creative bar when veterans would eventually return with new perspectives gleaned from a broader array of experiences. This was usually met with resistance: “Once they’re gone, how will we get them back?” High net, low roof. Maybe they were right at that time. Today, though, an organization that loses contact with its members that quickly is simply not trying.

When the community is mindfully organized, it will have even more substantive and creative interactions during opportunities to meet face-to-face. Most of the catching up has already happened. “What have you been up to these five years?” can give way to: “I wanted to talk to you more about that post the other day.” Goodbye, reunions; hello, laboratories. Social media enable human relationships to be thicker, wiser, and more stable.

On the other hand, the malaise that many digitized people feel is real, and I suspect that it strikes the hardest when a virtual community is replacing, rather than supplementing a physical community of stable, face-to-face relationships. Intimacy is often accessible only when built on a foundation of interaction.

Further, geographically dispersed but like-minded individuals talking to one another can also become an echo chamber, deaf to the insights of those of different ages, politics, and lifestyles, and blind to the nuances of received wisdom and local custom. Our celebration of diversity doesn’t look so impressive if we forget how to listen to all the grandparents in our midst.

It is no surprise that the remarkable burst of Jewish innovation in the past fifteen years coincided with the emergence of a digitized generation or that the innovation took a quantum leap forward when social media became the norm. This decade’s big story will be the attempt of that generation to put down roots and establish a stable infrastructure without losing the creative soul of their flexible and mobile origins.

Rootedness in physical space is important, often crucially so: People crave the mutual understanding and dependability that come through long-term relationships. Truly buoyant physical communities today, though, will be those that recognize the ways in which digital community organization reinforces their natural strengths so they can be more democratic and inclusive and better retain their members. Accordingly, those who have discovered the humanity remarkably enabled via social media will go deepest with these relationships when they set down roots and commit to physical community.

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Aryeh Bernstein, a Chicago native, lives in Jerusalem, where he teaches Torah at Yeshivat Talpiot’s TAKUM beit midrash for human rights. He has taught at Drisha, the Hartman High School, and Mechon Hadar, as well as at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, where he co-founded and directed the Northwoods Kollel. He is an editor-translator for the Koren English edition of the Steinsaltz Talmud and an editor-at-large of Jewschool.com. He is on the development team for Open Quorum, a project of Jewish Public Media, which sponsors the SermonSlam series. In 2011, he independently released a hip-hop album, “A Roomful of Ottomans.” 

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