Online Communities Are Discovered Not Made

Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

While I was gobsmacked by Eric Whitacre and his virtual choir 2,000 voices strong (even though he is entirely too handsome, too cool, and too talented), Eric didn't make the community that resulted in "Sleep" -- he allowed it, he enabled it, he discovered it, he facilitated it. There were always 2,052 people in the world who hungered to make art with their voices in a profound way with others.

All that Eric Whitacre did was allow it to happen.

In the past, before the advent of a sophisticated and user-friendly Internet, men and women would pack a duffle and catch a Greyhound bus in order to follow their dreams. Dreams had been always associated with two things: 1) getting away from all the negative Nellies who diminished their dreams as selfish, unattainable, or foolhardy and 2) going to someplace where you would finally find birds of a feather. New York for writers and actors, Cambridge for smarties and philosophers, L.A. for movie stars and rockers, and San Francisco if you just needed an all-accepting culture embrace.

More and more of the world is falling prey to the barrierless accessibility of the Internet, - Chris Abraham

These cities were destinations not because of their skyscrapers but because of the people and cultures housed within.

In the last 20 years, things have started to change. People are calling out "Olly Olly Oxen Free" and people just like them -- like us -- are coming out of hiding. While we see it in highest relief when it comes to dating, people are finding the loves of their lives online, geographic proximity and convenience be damned!

The Internet has been bringing people together all the way back when chatting required thermal paper and limited connection to a big mainframe somewhere else. Love affairs and friends-for-life were established via modem and BBS, amongst the chatter and heavy tolls of AOL chat rooms, within the more formal walls of TMN and the Well, as well as on IRC, message boards, forums, and down through the history and evolution of the web, web2.0, proto-social networks, social media, all the way to the doorsteps of the EricWhitacreVEVO channel on YouTube and its majestic and profound Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir 2.0, 'Sleep.'

Mark Zuckerburg did not make the community that is Facebook; nor did Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson make MySpace.

The Internet did not invent social networking -- it didn't even invent the term -- social network analysis goes all the way back to the 19th century Georg Simmel explored webs of group affiliations. No, I daresay that even before academics had big thoughts about "sets of actors and their dyadic ties."

We are social animals and we pursue connection with others no matter what. Be it jumping on a bus too young with the dream of headlining at CBGB, landing in Port Authority Bus Terminal (yikes!), and trying to find your way, to find your family (because the friends and family you left behind really sucked!). Seriously, though: life at home, in your own town, can really suck. What if you're gay? What if you don't believe in God? What if you're physically a boy who feels like he's really a girl? What if people call you a sissy or a fattie or a nerd or a waste of air? What if your dad wants you to be a real man or your mom calls you a slut?

Case in point: one of the 2,052 participants in the "Sleep" choir shared that her hunger for community, connection, and creativity was so strong, she was able to transcend both negativity and the Great Alaskan Bush to join Eric Whitacre's emergent creative community of purpose:

"When I told my husband that I was going to be a part of this, he told me that I did not have the voice for it. It hurt so much, and I shed some tears, but something inside of me wanted to do this despite his words. It is a dream come true to be a part of this choir, as I have never been a part of one. When I place a marker on the Google Earth Map, I had to go with the nearest city which is almost 400 miles away from where I live. As I am in the Great Alaskan Bush, satellite is my connection to the world."

The above message honestly stopped me in my tracks. I live in DC and have lived in the UK, Germany, Holland, Finland, was born in Jersey City, spent my first six years in Manhattan, grew up in Hawaii, and even tried to move in Portland, Oregon. I am portable and I enjoy a cornucopia of options. I am single, in my 40s, and relatively successful. I have never been someone who has maybe been stuck, with just a week stream of packets from space keeping me online. Even so, not even "400 miles away from" the nearest Alaskan city, connected only by satellite while being disparaged by your life partner can keep down a human spirit!

So, while the barriers to greatness and acclaim and truly world-class work have fallen, like the Berlin Wall, for those of us who are on the Internet site of the digital divide, it wouldn't matter either way. People have always desperately been in search of connection. We have always been in search of family. And, in the Internet age, we're more able to choose the members of our families, to join tribes based not on blood, township, region, nation state, or continent, but based on your passion, your politics, what matters to you, who you love, what you do, or whatever turns you on.

What's more, the Internet allows you to moonlight. It allows you to cheat on your identity. It allows you to try on as many identities as you like without every really needing to choose just one. With the Internet, you can choose whether you want to be a singer or just sing as well write as well as paint as well as marry someone of the same gender as well as pursue conservative politics -- allowing all of us to cobble together the life we want to live, to roll our own psyche without the mandates and dictates of the people physically closest to us based solely on the arbitrary rules of parental ownership and geographic proximity that may well have crushed and destroyed very sensitive souls as collateral damage with "fitting in," "being a man," "stopping being such a freak," and "stop embarrassing your family" being the only excuse.

The Internet is not some sort of escapism. Virtual communities are not some sort of easy escape route. It takes a heaping spoonful -- nay, a dump truck -- of bravery to invest the sort of time, energy, emotion, vulnerability, and commitment into people you've most likely never met -- and possibly will never meet -- when our entire history as human being has been spent face-to-face. As a result, these hammer-forged relationships tend to become fiercely loyal and committed.

I pity the fool who underestimates the true power of all of this silliness. Eric Whitacre's amazing experiment in emergent community building may well be one of the most high-profile and magnificent recent manifestations of self-selection, but it is neither new nor uncommon. Gorgeous new families are being born to this world every day thanks to the Internet -- and, honestly, we're all very new to this. The Internet is still so small, so new, and still very elitist.

More and more of the world is falling prey to the barrierless accessibility of the Internet, globally; and, when the language barrier is transcended and the digital divide is razed, just imagine what Eric Whitacre will be able to do with his amazing mad skills and generous heart. Imagine what each and every one of his choir members will be able to do as well, all by themselves, with a little help of a couple thousand of their closest friends.

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