By Jennifer Lynch, Ph.D.
I was born and raised in a small town. My grandparents and their friends helped build my community. Their children and their children’s children have all called this place home. But it is more than my home. It is my storybook, my fairy tale.
When I was young, I didn’t know businesses had formal names. We just identified them by who owned them. We ate at Benzing’s and got gas from Booth’s. The grown-ups went to Jenning’s for crab cakes, and everyone was sad when it came time to call Witzke’s.
In my small town, there was a connection between businesses owners and their surrounding neighbors. They cared about each another. Business was personal. But everything in my small town was personal. Even casual introductions were about relationships, not title. “This is Mr. Baldwin, he went to high school with your dad; this is Mr. Cummings, he is good friends with your uncle; this is Ms. Hickman, she has known you since the day you were born.” These introductions captured the essence of my world. It didn’t matter what you did for a living, it only mattered that you shared a history with folks down the street. These relationships were personal, intimate, and authentic. Relationships brought us together and provided a broad canopy of protection. We all had a place here. We made our own connections and forged our own way under the watchful eye of those who walked before us.
Living here was wonderful, but it did come with a set of rules:
- Don’t share other people’s business. It isn’t your story to tell.
- Don’t share your negativity. Everyone has to carry their own troubles, and they don’t need to carry yours too.
- If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it. Especially in public.
- Show some grace even if you have a bad experience with others. You don’t know the whole story.
- Respect community leaders, elected officials and professionals. It isn’t about agreement, but it is a respect for service.
- Put others first. If we do that, we can be certain that someone else will put our needs first when the time comes.
We used to live, work, worship, and play all within a few blocks. Discretion and restraint were important when interacting with others because we knew our lives were woven together by common activities, people, and events. To snip at someone else was to risk unraveling your own tapestry.
But as technology advanced, so did our ability to connect with a broader audience. As it presented the opportunity to build relationships and form communities outside traditional geographical, cultural, racial, and socio-economic boundaries, it also separated us. While we could now find like-minded people outside of our immediate world and connect with those we lost touch with over the years right from our phones, it also poked holes in that canopy of civility. It blew sand in our watchful eye of collective responsibility. These advances were supposed to bring us closer. They have done anything but.
Technology actually limits personal interactions and our intersections of common experiences. It creates anonymity and fluidity of engagement. We can easily join and exit online discussions with reduced responsibility to remain engaged. This lack of commitment and personal responsibility creates a fractured communal experience. We now feel free to snip at neighbors online because our lives won’t necessarily intertwine at church, on the ball field, or on the street. If gossip spreads like wildfire over coffee, it spreads even faster by just hitting send. This is what happens when geography and relationship circles no longer serve as natural firewalls.
Online communities, text strings, chats, and apps deliver instantaneous connections and infinite information. We want to know why the helicopters are circling, why the corner business closed so suddenly, and when Santa is coming on the firetruck. In our haste to know and be in the know, we rarely verify information before sharing. Technology depersonalizes interactions, allowing us to view business owners and neighbors as objects and not humans. And just like that, the viral spread of misinformation lands a sucker punch square on the jaw of the values we used to cherish. We used to valued discretion, privacy, expertise and protection while the spry online community values speed, unfiltered information, and power shifts. One is planned and methodical, the other agile, swift, and often unforgiving.
Next Door and closed Facebook groups are the most common applications that purport to bring us together. However, because the norms of online communities are so vastly different from those I remember, neighbors now shift how they communicate to match virtual expectations. This explains why neighbors wave to each other cordially on the street and then take to Next Door to complain about barking dogs and stray trash can lids. It is why everyone is “stupid” in so many Facebook comments.
Online communications are often laced with claims of protecting and strengthening the community while actually disrupting it. Under the guise of community building, many online communicators tear it down. There is a boldness that makes it ok to disparage local business owners and leaders, cast shade on neighbors, and inject mistrust into the institutional cornerstones of the community. Technology has created asymmetrical and depersonalized communications. In a world in which information currency comes fast and furious, callousness is normalized and validated.
Our personal investment in any community lasts only as long as we experience personal security and a sense of place. Our nimbleness and lack of investment is creating a brave new world that is built on superficial relationships and ambivalent histories. We are slowly unraveling step by step. We have to chart a new course.
But this is my storybook, and it is not without a happy ending. You see, community in not a binary choice. We get to choose where this journey takes us. Technological advances will continue, but we can choose to build connections online while still following traditional rules of engagement. We can vow to enhance our community by lifting each other up. We can choose to amplify and accelerate all that is beautiful and unique about where we live. The choice is ours. I believe in my town. I believe in your town. I believe in our history. I believe in us.
Dr. Jennifer Lynch is an elementary school principal. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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