July 12, 2007

Virtually Gathering Around the Digital Camp Fire

(or: What Exceedingly Strange But Wondrous Things These 21st Century Relationships Are)

I just recently read a very interesting novel by the German writer Thommie Bayer. What struck me after getting about forty or so pages into Singvogel (sorry folks, only available in German) is that the vast majority of the "action" in this novel takes place as the first-person narrator is sitting at the computer all alone in his writing studio (he's a screenwriter). We hear the narrator's internal monologue while he's reading and answering e-mails (we also get to read the e-mails), doing research on the Internet, and while he's working. One could easily imagine that reading about a guy sitting at his computer would be dull. But whats' surprising is that it isn't. An incredible number of things "happen" while he electronically communicates with friends in various cities, and with his wife who commutes to another city.

But it gets better. He gets an unsolicited e-mail from a woman who's seen a film he wrote. A lively and intimate correspondence begins. But wait! It gets even more complex: he starts getting e-mails from the woman's jealous boyfriend. And as I read about this dynamic, unpredictable, and very engaging life getting played out on the Internet, the realization hit me: Oh my God! This really is what 21st century life is like!

Well, at least for some of us. But that "some of us" is actually quite a few of us. Those legions of men and women who go to an office and work in front of the ubiquitous "one-eyed monster" all day. And even the ones who stay home have unlimited, always-on, broadband now.

If there is one thing that typifies to me the watershed that came with the dawn of the 21st century, it is the way that social interaction has been transformed by the Internet.

It used to be, going back to prehistoric times, that the way people met people was face to face. At school, in church, at work, at parties, in the neighborhood. But now a surprising number of relationships start on Internet forums, chat rooms, blogs, or some other digital format used on the Internet.

Currently, of all the women who play significant roles as friends in my wife's life, easily 9/10ths of them are women she met in mother/baby forums when she was pregnant. There is a core of them who met on one particular forum topic, realized after a time that they were a compatible group, and formed a private forum of their own. This group has been together for six years now. Since they met on a Hungarian language forum, and they're mostly from Budapest, they began arranging to meet in person. They even have a monthly "women's night" when they get together at someone's house for dinner.

And they forum together daily.

I have a group of friends I met on a forum for Rosicrucian mysticism that I was moderating. After two and a half years, the forum became unstable and politics broke it up. A core group decided it was time to form a private forum. I wonder how often this happens: a core group meets on a public forum and recognise their compatibility, so they form a new, private forum?

My friends are spread across several continents, so we can't meet personally, like my wife's pals. But we're still close. We know a lot about each other, and we've gone through many experiences together. We often mention how odd it is that we feel as close or closer to one another as we do to the people (colleagues, for instance) we see physically every day.

Watching what my wife's forum does has led me to the conclusion that forums are sort of a "feminine" mode of communication. It's all about networking and the group. Her forum doesn't even really bother with lots of topics and threads. They just write everything into the same thread and share everything with each other. It's as if they were all sitting in the same room and knitting or spinning wool and having a conversation as a group.

The implications for how the organisation of society will change are staggering. It's (at the risk of being cliche) revolutionary. The ways people have met one another since time immemorial are no longer the rule. The way relationships develop over time is also new. And the nature of the groups we organise ourselves into are new, as well. Welcome to the Aquarian age.

This doesn't mean that traditional relationships are suddenly obsolete. The typewriter didn't make the pen obsolete. It's a new layer of our society. And one that permeates through old boundaries. Forums can be totally international, cutting across all sorts of boundaries of class, race, religion and education. But we will always need the people who are physically near us and will always long to physically meet some of the people we have met through the Internet.

I'll wrap up with an anecdote. My wife was contacted by a woman whom someone had recommended to read my wife's blog, because my wife writes a lot about being the parent of children who go to Waldorf school. This woman asked if she could publish some of my wife's postings as articles in the newsletter she edits for the Waldorf school her son goes to. We met (face to face) through a home-birth associated gathering (our children and their daughter were born at home) and later at a Waldorf-associated gathering. Last week we were invited to visit them at their house on the Hungarian "great plain".

We drove south of Budapest onto the puszta, the famous Hungarian great plain that separates the rest of Europe from the "Balkans". Though I've driven across the great plain many times, this was the first chance I'd ever had to stay there. We spent two nights at the farmhouse of these friends we'd met through the Internet. Saturday morning I went jogging, and it was wonderful. The soil there is almost pure sand, so jogging on the dirt roads is like jogging on the beach. Where there is forest, it's scrubby and thin, and where there is no forest, it's all tough stringy plants that can take sun and dry heat. It reminded me of California's Sacramento Valley, actually. And the stars at night! We were vast distances from any city lights. I don't remember the last time I saw the Milky Way from horizon to horizon. And the stars have colors! I'd forgotten that.

We spent time cooking and enjoying good meals together, and our children played together doing the sorts of things they don't have the opportunity to do in the city.

We've invited them to come visit us in Budapest.

It all started on the Internet, but it's developed into a real flesh-and-blood relationship between people who can look one another in the eyes, clasp one another's hands, share a satisfying meal. But I can guarantee you we never would have met one another ten years ago. And I never would have had the same opportunity to learn the bit of practical geography that came with that visit.

Amazing, this medium. And the transformation is only really beginning.


dh said...

Hi Scrib,

That is an awesome article you have just written!

God your good with words dude - I admire your obvious talents immensly!

Anyway, thats enough of that, don't want you getting big headed do we? LOL (joking!)

That story you're reading sounds spookily accurate. It's interesting because naturally 'chatty' people continue being naturally chatty through the medium of the interet. Writing together about a common subject of interest on a forum does lead to really getting to know each other very well. I feel close to the people that I've come to know from my past forum associations. I honestly regard you all as being amongst my closest friends!

God, people can even fall in love over the internet and get together! Hey, don't worry Scrib thats not a hint - lol I'm just saying that this 'modern' media is opening the world and changing the world and even creating a 'new' world for the future!

That's quite amamzing about Szilvi's blog and her friends she met over the internet.

There is still a nagging fear in the minds of some people that the 'internet' is the place where you will meet a charming seriel killer!
So the fear of that puts people off from using the medium. Interestingly, in the city of Brighton where I live near, any 'seriel killers' have met thier victums through ordinary old fashioned events like parties, mutual friends and pubs/clubs etc...not over the internet. Wierdo's are wierdo's - you find them every where. The internet being a public place means you would just naturally be selective about who you meet like your would in real life!

Unless of course you're being chased in cyber space by a jealous boyfriend - lol

Well thats enough commenting for now. Great blog Scrib, keep up the good work! Catch you later bro..!

Hellibrarian said...

Speaking of Singelvogel, number of young adult novels are being published these days with the narrative being email. "Never Mind," jointly written by Rachel Vail and Avi comes to mind, but there are others. The idea being, what better a way to get YAs to read...since we all know that they can only communicate through Instant Messaging now, not in complete sentences :) :)