"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

In praise of virtual communities

A lot of stuff has been written about the role of so-called virtual communities on the internet and their role in our new technology-enhanced world of online everything and electronic communication and globalized yadda yadda yadda. Well, most of what you've read, like most of everything, is likely crap - but let me tell you from experience - there is nothing "virtual" about online communities, they are as real as any other. 

I know by writing about this on a blog I'm probably already preaching to the choir, but in my 15 or so years on the internet, I've been part of more than a couple online groups from the old-time BBS type to the "cutting-edge" worlds of Second Life-MyBook-FaceSpace etc etc. 
Just because the people involved are pixels on your computer screen doesn't make them any less real. I have good friends I've made through different online venues, none of whom I've met in the flesh, though we have exchanged innumerable letters, gifts and confidences. 
When I first got on the internet 15 years ago, I used to post a lot to the alt.Callahans message boards, in its day one of the busiest non-pornographic spots on the internet. You know what the key precept there was? Shared pain is lessened, shared joy increased (aka Spider's Law) and dammit, that precept was very much in evidence in the discussions. Sure, there were arguments and even flame wars and mean things occasionally said, but by and large the people there  genuinely gave a damn about each other and uplifted one another's spirits, and mostly made each other laugh a lot.
I used to spend a bit of time on the BBC's excellent Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy boards too (see blogroll), and have a few friends from that time and virtual space I still stay vaguely in touch with, a few of whom still read this blog. And then, of course, there are all of you who read this blog and leave your comments, and the people who are part of Progressive Bloggers and now those who listen to the podcast and email or comment - and I'm grateful for the connections I've made in that way too. 
But when it comes to community, let me tell you - Second Life really does have the edge over other forums. 
I've been hanging out with these folks for a couple of years now, and a nicer, more well-meaning bunch you will not find. We get together in various combinations and at various locations a few times a week. Sometimes, like at my Sunday night parties at the Red Zeppelin--my little virtual tree fort clubhouse in Second Life--it's just for laughs and conversation. Other times, such as the annual virtual Netroots Nation convention,  it's for political activism. Even when we are just hanging out having a good time, we've done good things - a couple of months ago we raised a couple of hundred bucks for relief in Haiti, and we often pass the virtual hat to send flowers to friends in the hospital or help out other causes.
Today was a prime example of the latter type of gathering. One of the groups I've gotten involved with in Second Life (and a major inspiration for the Maple Leaf Revolution podcast) is Virtually Speaking,  a sort of progressive talk show done in real time in Second Life as well as being recorded as a podcast.
Say what you want about SL being a bunch of nerds who spend too much time online or who are too wrapped up in their fantasy world  -- and yeah, there are those people there too -- but I just spent 90 minutes as part of a discussion by two U.S. military lawyers who are doing their damnedest to get innocent people freed from Guantanamo Bay. I even got to ask them some questions. 

That cartoon lady on the right is my good pal Seattle Tammy aka Bookem Streeter from Washington state, who sells me books at Jackson Street Books and does occasional writing at Daily Kos and Jesus' General. She met Lt. Col Barry Wingard and Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Bogucki through a twitter group and email network that she joined that was set up by a blogger and the mother of one of these fine men. Wingard and Bogucki are the military lawyers I mentioned earlier who are working their asses off to uphold the best ideals of the United States and the rule of law. You can, and should, read more about them and their efforts here and here. You can, and should, listen to the discussion here
I'm very proud of Tammy for putting this event together and very proud of the community that took part - - it was one of the most compelling onlne discussions of any kind I've been a part of. And Virtually Speaking does this kind of thing a couple of times a week with different guests. Not all of them are as compelling as these to JAG lawyers, but it's a pretty impressive list just the same.
My point is that such a forum could not have taken place in any other non-commercial medium - we had a real time discussion with people from Texas to Tokyo to Timbuktu, with the potential for people to call in with questions or simply type them in on the screen for the panelists to read and respond to. The audience of about 50 could both question the panel and discuss their answers among ourselves. And then we all went to our favorite club and danced (to music provided by Tammy' husband, my pal Seattle Dan aka Dano Bookmite) while we talked about the earlier discussion. Say what you want about the nerdiness of me hanging out with my "cartoon friends", but you try that with Meet the Press.


SeattleDan said...

Anyone ever tell you that you are a Prince of a Man?

You are a prince of a man.

Shinigami Kayo said...

That was one great event, and Tammy did a fantastic job

Redwood said...

I'm just sorry I missed it! (A customer called 15 minutes before closing, and I had to stay late to help them). I'm going to have to listen to the recording later tonight.

Lelani Carver said...

Sorry I missed it, no excuse. The Virtually Speaking venue and format is AWESOME and the chance for audience interaction must be very intriguing for guests, this was a tremendous "get" (appearance).

Luna said...

Hah! I knew you were *that* Rev. Paperboy. I was a regular at alt.callhans and then #callahans for years.

It's amazing how small the internet is sometimes. I ran into Sailor Jim on LJ one day. And Bill Gawne just yesterday.