Of all the Internet- and community-related research I have read, it is funny that the work that resonates with me the most is something I mostly disagree with. Sherry Turkle’s exploration of MUD (Multi-User Dungeons)—online social or gaming spaces connecting multiple users—communities in Life on the Screen for the most part concentrates on the ability of individuals to experiment with new identities, an assumption that is increasingly argued to be a false starting point. However, her concept of “synthetic” reality struck me as the perfect explanation for all of the discord in comparing online and offline communities.
She references Descartes’ concept of synthetic in everyday life with the example of America as Disneyland. When people first visit Disneyland’s Los Angeles and later visits the “real” Los Angeles, the simulation has created expectations and laid a foundation for the experience. But is a modern city real on its own—or is it just another simulation?
The impact of synthetic experiences reaches far beyond the presentation of something in Disneyland preparing us for its presence, and can also mean that our everyday lives are filled with simulations even outside of theme parks. The argument has been made that malls are commercially-driven, privately-owned simulations of the idealized small town Main Street. If this is the case, all of Los Angeles could be a simulation of something else. Malls are but one example in a society filled with chain stores and packaged experiences. When we eat at a Mexican restaurant it is more than likely a chain where the recipes prepared by chefs across the continent are all the same interpretations of Mexican cuisine (or Asian, Italian, etc). While restaurants are still locations where people congregate to eat, the spaces are divided and interaction is not encouraged. Idealizations of community past include bars, cafes, or restaurants where friends meet up, neighbors interact, and strangers become acquaintances. The modern restaurant does not offer a space for these interactions, and true public spaces are disappearing rapidly.
If all of life is an imitation, or replication, of something else – then the physical holds little value over the digital when neither is “real.” Seymour Sarason urged psychologists to consider that our role in culture, “our ways of living, the theories we hold, and the actions we take,” is part of the problem that produces a society that feels community is collapsing (p.276 of The psychological sense of community). Our participation in activities such as commuting from the suburbs, accepting—or supporting financially—synthetic experiences in every day life, and choosing to prioritize mobile communication at the expense of interacting locally all add up to the current lifestyle that is simultaneously feared as destructive. We are embedded in the culture, we have created the culture, yet we blame the culture for weakening community.
Commonly proposed solutions are prime examples of how far we have buried ourselves within this dilemma. Touted alternatives to online community often involve other forms of media such as joining a book of the month club. If a group gathers to discuss a book in person (or watch a film or play video games) media are still central characteristics of the community. Most of the alternatives recommended as better than online communities are not even founded on the idealized communities that supposedly strengthened our sense of community, where we had the ability to create strong bonds by working, living, and struggling together for long periods of time. Our alternatives are also media-centric and transient. By concentrating only on what has been known in the hopes that it will reinforce a sense of community that seems to be disappearing, the potential within new forms of media are overlooked because they are all clumped together. Support groups, team building experiences, learning communities all have the potential to impact lives in new spaces. Social digital gaming communities report traditional experiences of sense of community. Yet these new avenues for connecting are treated with apprehension.
One criticism of the online community is that there is no accountability, and if people are not stuck in the situation they will just move on rather than overcome obstacles together. People move out of neighborhoods, cities, and states easily now as well as out of organizations and workplaces. All communities have become transient. If community is only present in small areas where people are rooted for generations and therefore accountable and reliant on one another, then there is no community unless it is impossible to leave. We are a mobile society – both the physical and mediated implications that word brings. The desire to stay and change things should be what distinguishes strong community from weak, not the inability to leave.