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What is the Value of Participating
in an Online Community?

Contributed anonymously by one of my online friends - December, 2000

By writing in this - asynchronous online 'communities' - context, it is possible to learn a great deal about oneself precisely because a huge amount of what revolves around that writing is all in one's head. And there is no better way to take out and examine what is in one's head than to write about it. Because humans generally mediate their perceptions through language, preserving and ordering the language around one's thoughts serves an essential function of simultaneously historicizing and analyzing what is in one's head.

To write about it within some context of potential for close-to-immediate feedback and "in the same vein" reaction (i.e. also written, and also generally from people who know the writer more or less the same way that the writer knows those audience members) is an experience, and sometimes even a privilege, that is not available to most people within the context of their non-online lives and worlds.

While this sort of communication often cannot be supported by the level of commitment and communion one enjoys within one's flesh and blood social support groups, or even the level to which some famous historical correspondents have taken it, other aspects of writing interactively online compensate to some extent for those shortcomings.

The writer rarely has to wait long for a response. She does not have to observe the eyes rolling or the bored yawns, or see how many people pass over her words entirely (though that is a possibility using some online tools). In order to fit into the context, she must read a good deal, and in so doing, she begins to discriminate between the styles of other writers and to speak more clearly in her own voice. She must cooperate with the rationale of the place, and, in so doing, she takes her writing out of the realm of the solitary craft and into the realm of group effort and cooperation.

Writing in this context is neither no more nor no less self-indulgent than is chipping away at one's novel for years and years, or filling diary after diary with one's thoughts. The quotient of self-indulgence is determined, as in all things, by the balance apparent - or missing - in the life so involved, and in the intertwined lives of the others who depend on the writer.

St. Augustine had a rule for balance in the spiritual order he founded: five hours per day of manual labour, five hours per day of solitary prayer and contemplation, five hours per day of intellectual work (reading, writing, studying). The imperatives of our modern world deny us this balance, and the extent and manner of our compensation for this lack manifests itself to others in socially more or less acceptable ways. As time marches on, what others have difficulty perceiving, today, as an example of exercising one's literacy skills - due to the nature of the tools involved in that exercise - may soon be freed of the cloaking mystique of the technology and seen for what it is, as yet another manifestation of the communication need inherent in the nature of humankind.

Most of the time I have "wasted" online has been a result of following projects that were worthwhile for others but that fulfilled few of my own needs. This experience mirrors that of non-online life; similarly, I have volunteered because of direct benefit to others who mattered to me, where the benefit to me was more subtle and not perceived as readily. Had I not foreclosed the ability to choose for myself, I might have enjoyed the contribution more but always, I learn.

The question is not how happy we are but, rather, how much we learn. If we have learned - even if only about our own selves - is the time wasted?

The strengths of the internet: exposure to diversity, to that uncomfortable abrasion against others' words and thoughts that is almost never available to us in the normal course of everyday existence, that abrasion that forces us to think and to grow; the corollary many-to-many communication, especially within the arena of civic participation, an arena that all who have felt the empowerment afforded by access to decision makers must strive to make available to - and enticing to - everyone; the shortening and compressing of distance and time to achieve critical mass in everything from group projects, to servicing the most geographically distant customer or client, to sharing with loved ones far away, in a manner that was hitherto impossible (think of broadband capabilities for live video transfer, or wireless access). And more.

Ask not how much time you wasted. Ask what you have learned.

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