The subject that has dominated discussion in the e-learning world in the last few years is the idea of an 'online community': the e-learning world has fashioned itself as such a community, where messages are shared on Twitter and Facebook amongst a group of people who meet each other at conferences. However, when we think of the broader sense of the word 'community', the sharing of messages through text is only a tiny subset of its constituent aspects.
The communities studied by anthropologists are much richer in their means of communication and collective action. From the Inuit Indians who shared the 'potlatch' gifts studied by Mauss, to the Eastern Samoan tribes of Mead, to the communité de l'arche established by the catholic priest Jean Vanier.. there is much more to their 'communitas' than what appears online.
But for the online community, online-ness is the validation of an ideal around which they themselves have organised. To deny the 'community-ness' of the online community is to deny the ideal around which so many have established their personal identities. And yet, the deficiencies of the online community as a community in an anthropological sense are obvious.
The conflation of the word 'community' to create equivalence between the online community and the 'face-to-face community' is particularly suspect. So much more happens when people are together: the life-and-death realities of existence are encountered in direct and practically ineffable ways. Online, and the nature of 'community' is reduced to text messages made in a strategic way by individuals seeking to maintain their position within the 'online' (and face-to-face) community.
I think it's a mistake to think of such a thing as an online 'community'. What happens online is strictly 'strategic'. My tweeting of this blog entry is a classic example: I seek to gain the attention of those I know, and I wouldn't be so bothered unless I could see some strategic advantage in it for me. I don't believe I am alone in this egomania!
But that strategic drive for recognition and feeding the ego is not (or at least only partly) what happens in real-life communities. There, issues of recognition, empathy, care and concern for each other are paramount. There, the radical dependence of one individual on everyone else is directly confronted through gestures and glances which have profound meaning for all.
We would like to think of technology as providing a 'virtual community', but I think this is mistaken not just because what is created online is not strictly a 'community', but it is also mistaken because the picture that is adopted of technology is one which always assumes that individual experience of face-to-face can be replaced by online experience. It can't. They are fundamentally different entities.
But this is not to say that technology doesn't have something to offer real communities. But it is not in replacing the 'community-ness' of the communities, but rather in enhancing community-ness by addressing directly the problem of 'fractured meanings' in the lives of individuals. Clearly the making of strategic communications online has become part of daily life. But equally, people still live in families, go to school, sit in lectures, etc. Those are convivial situations within which real communities might develop. The challenge however, is always to find a link between the meaningfulness of the 'real' communities and the meaning of strategic exchanges of text messages online.