This is an increasingly relevant question as self-styled “online communities” such as Reddit or Facebook show no signs of slowing down their exponential growth. And it’s increasingly important for churches too, as many churches start up blogs, webcasts, online prayer submissions, bible study chat rooms, virtual worship, virtual counseling, and more. It’s foolish to deny all validity to these methods of communication — after all, being able to remain in communication with friends halfway around the world can greatly strengthen a relationship — but I remain skeptical of community in the virtual space.
Historically, being a member of a community requires a different mode of interaction than does being an individual in a public space. Because communities are locally placed, the individual generally did not have a choice as to what community he or she belonged. The key differences then are trust and accountability — both are required for community to work well but not for a public. As an individual the world greets me as I try to navigate it in a personal journey, but as a member of a community my experiences are mediated by my place in the community and I am forced to realize that I am not the only author in my story. Social interactions in the public space generally occur either with strangers, people to whom we have no specific obligation, or with an association of friends gathered around a common interest. In a community, on the other hand, there are no strangers but not everyone is a friend (where friendship is loosely defined as two or more people bonding over a common goal or interest). In a community, identity cannot be separated from community role.
Obviously the pictures I have just drawn are two extremes. In the real world, one is much more likely to find things drawn on a spectrum rather than a strict dichotomy. The “Duke community” is an example of this. It is a public in the sense that I am not accountable to the majority of the Duke population except in the loosest sense possible (the Duke Community Standard comes to mind), and I cannot explicitly trust people that I do not know (and I only know a fraction of the people considered a part of the Duke community). Yet there is often a shared “Duke” experience, and our identities are to some extent informed by our role in the community. A workplace or school are other examples that share characteristics of a public and a community.
We are now better equipped to respond to our original question: Can community exist in the virtual space? For our purposes, “virtual space” means the Internet. More sophisticated virtual reality technologies such as that found in the movie “The Matrix” require a different response than the one I will give here. It is my contention that community cannot exist solely in the virtual sphere, though a pre-existing community may be able to augment their interactions via the Internet. I say this because the Internet only allows an individualistic mode of engagement — however busy the internet may be or however well one can surround one’s self with other denizens of the Internet, the technology is still designed in such a way that you are alone. It takes no more than a click or two to disengage from an online “community.” The anonymity of the Internet does not require accountability. And the technology is designed in such a way that it is not possible to engage the whole of one’s self — mind, body, and spirit — with an online “community” and so proper trust cannot be obtained.
I want to make it clear that the claim that virtual community cannot exist does not implicitly devalue the Internet as a valuable mode of social interaction and communication. Deep discussions, good times, and a sense of connection and closeness can still be had in the virtual space — but I do not think it can honestly be called community. This recognition will be increasingly important for churches, as more and more of them utilize online resources. Talking to church members, I have had numerous people tell me that online resources are very helpful, especially when they want to stay connected to a community they can no longer physically be a part of. But offloading too much of the “community” of a church can run the risk of hyper-individualizing notions of community.