Community, Real or Imagined

In addition to serving as a place to record the challenges and joys of being a dad and a husband, my dadblog is a place of introspection.  A couple of months ago I signed up for a web-based community building platform called “Nextdoor.com.”  More on that later, though.

When I was in grad school I read two eye-opening books on community and community organization: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert Putnam, and Connexity:How to Live in a Connected World, by Geoff Mulgan.  Querying these books on amazon produced a third that caught my eye: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, by Sherry Turkle.  All of these books run on a common theme: the incongruity of technology and personal relationships.  Does the world have to work this way?  If we’re all so glued to our personal electronics does that then mean that we are automatically predisposed to tune out the real world and relationships that come with it?  Can a person be “friends” with someone living halfway around the world whom they’ve never truly met and at the same time enjoy close and meaningful friendships with the people living next door or down the block?

I honestly don’t know the answer.  I do know that it’s pretty common for people not to know their neighbors anymore.  It was different a few generations ago.  We’ve become more withdrawn as a society.  Less engaged with civic activities.  It feels as though the world is happening to us rather than with our input.  From dual income households out of necessity, to over-scheduling our lives, somehow we’ve boxed out this part of our lives that has so much potential to enrich it. My wife grew up in a fairly affluent upper-middle class neighborhood (at the time) and pretty much knew every kid on the loop.  The parents all knew each other too.  Some of them have continued to be lifelong friends.  It feels like a rarity to have such a tight knit block in this day and age.

I believe that there is something addictive about all technology.  My wife will even admit that she spends a ton more time online since meeting me than she used to.  I’m partly to blame, sure, I even signed her up for facebook!  While I’m an accomplice in that respect, the reality seems to be that any place that you can create and define an alter ego that represents the limits of your creativity and self-projection has some appeal.  The glowing screen is a time vampire.  We’re all guilty of it to varying extents if we are truly honest with ourselves.  There are deeper psychological reasons that these alternate realities can be so addictive, but I’m not a psychology researcher so I won’t get into that.  Instead, I offer anecdotes and reflections.

A romantic dinner date?

  1. Personal electronics.  Is the above picture a familiar sight?  I resisted joining the smartphone revolution for so long for precisely this reason.  I didn’t want to be that guy.  You know, the one who comes to meetings with his phone and flits through email or heavens knows what while you’re attempting to have a productive brainstorming session.  The guy who tunes out halfway through a conversation to answer a text or spam refresh on his email feed.  The guy who sits at dinner reading news feeds instead of you know, conversing with his companions.  The guy who sets a really crappy example of social interaction for his children.  I’m not sure how successful I’ve been at all of this since I conformed and got my smartphone 2 years ago, but I feel like I’m doing all right compared to many others I’ve witnessed.  Of course, someone could keep me honest if I’m slacking on the etiquette.
  2. Gaming, gaming, gaming.  Is there a happy medium?  Many of you who know me personally know that I have struggled with balancing gaming and the rest of my life over the years.  I won’t go into great detail about it.  I’d like to think I have it mostly under wraps, but who knows what kinds of stressful events may push me back into that withdrawn state.  I remember spending copious amounts of time online after the munchkin was first born.  It was easier than trying to come to grips with the tremendous and life changing impact that having a (premature) child brings.  I’m still ashamed of my behavior during that time.  I essentially checked out.  I’m sure everyone who happens upon this blog knows of at least one person in their lives who spends an unhealthy amount of time wrapped up in artificial distractions.
  3. Television v. Internet.  I was a huge TV watcher as a kid.  Probably at least 3 hours a day?  I don’t blame my parents for allowing it.  Is TV any better than the internet?  It doesn’t facilitate much in the way of meaningful conversation or relationship building.  It, too, is a sedentary activity.  I went through boarding school, college, and grad school without TV for the most part.  It just wasn’t really a pursuit.  I spent a lot of time instead on the computer.  Gaming, searching for the next great band, reading news, chronicling my life (shut that old LJ down though…man what drivel!)  It’s a tossup, really.  Ultimately too much of anything isn’t good for you…everything in moderation, right?  TV does seem to have one advantage in that it’s a pretty good foil for social get togethers.  Over the years we have hosted regular LOST viewing gatherings, “Gay TV” night, which usually consisted of a bunch of shows on Bravo, and most recently, Glee nights.  A redeeming quality that’s only worthwhile if you have people to invite and share the viewing.

So.  Nextdoor.  I launched the site successfully (10 neighbors must sign up within a specified time frame) a few months ago but I’ve let it languish.  Building community takes work, and it’s not something to be done alone.  You can use a few features like flyers and postcards, but most people agree that the most effective way to build it is from the ground up, going door to door or using word of mouth.  We’ve been living in Long Beach for almost a year now and I have yet to feel like we have a close-knit reliable community.  We love our immediate neighbors next door, but we imported them!  We’re gradually meeting people who live down the block, but gosh it’s a slow process…a whole year and I know 3 people on our block!  It’s not like we don’t spend a ton of time playing out front, either.  I guess in my mind I had hoped it would happen organically, but maybe it just means being proactive.

So here is an opportunity to merge technology and community in a way that social networking sites cannot.  Getting people out and interacting in real-time!  Helping each other out, knowing who lives around us.  I may post periodic updates if I can build some more momentum.  Of course, there’s a potential darker side to all of this online front-loading of community.  Megan’s law, for instance, and others who actually can detract from a community.  I haven’t figured out how to reconcile that, but I think generally most people are good, and the few bad apples will make themselves apparent over time.

NPR ran a story this morning about the diminishing radius of children’s boundaries across a number of generations.  Knowing your neighbors and having a strong community in place is one way to restore some of that independence and flexibility in allowing kids to feel safe to explore their neighborhoods.  I envision a future where my girls can ride their bikes the two+ miles to Amma’s house without flinching, or go down to the beach and play unsupervised if they so choose.  Will nextdoor help make that possible?  Most of the boundaries we set up for ourselves and our kids are constructed in our minds, but there’s surely a balance to strike between helicopter never-let-my-kid-out-of-my-sight syndrome and free range put-my-kid-in-harm’s-way syndrome.  Fortunately I don’t need to answer those questions for quite some time…

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About AmateurParent

I'm just a guy.
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