This post is in response to one of hers, where the "group" begin talking about communities. That post, plus a couple of others, included quite a bit of discussion about online communities, and how they're shaping our world. Like many ideas, this one percolated through my brain -- slowly -- for a few days. I responded to Sarah's posts, but it's time to discuss this a little more in-depth. Rather than take up her space, I'm putting it here.
Fiction authors have been creating "communities" since the first man learned to draw pictures on cave walls, or string two hieroglyphs together on papyrus. Shakespeare created communities in his plays. Dickens depicted the communities around him for people to find decades, even centuries, later. That's what authors do - they create communities, populate them, have those people interact, solve problems, and be rewarded or punished as the author chooses. How many people who have read JRR Tolkein's "Hobbit", or "Lord of the Rings", didn't wish to join his world? How many people want to attend Hogwarts College of Wizardry after reading J.K. Rowling's tales of Harry Potter? The hundreds of role-playing games that have bloomed across the Internet, and in high schools and college dorms, speak forcefully of the commitment to imaginary communities, many of which not only don't exist, but actually couldn't exist in our world.
Science fiction and fantasy authors go beyond that. They not only create communities, they create whole worlds, societies, empires, and much, much more. They create interactions not only between human beings, but between them and aliens, strange beasts, hostile environments, deadly diseases, and implacable foes. Anne McCaffrey's "PERN" worlds with their huge dragons, or the FT&T '9-Star League"; Piers Anthony's "Xanth"; Jerry Pournelle's "Falkenburg" or "Janissaries" series or the Mote worlds; Robert Heinlein's "Woodrow Wilson Smith" series; Edgar Rice Burrough's "Jack Carter" books; this list only lightly touches the surface of a depth of enjoyable, entertaining, and frequently inspiring books where authors have established alternate communities. In most cases, they're not only alternate communities, but viable, vibrant, ALIVE communities that most people would be proud to be a member of.
Online communities are much the same way. Instead of a gathering of people who live in close proximity to one another, they're communities of people with shared backgrounds, shared experiences, shared goals, and often, shared problems. They don't so much replace physical communities as they augment and overlap them. The barriers of physical presence have been broken down, replaced with pixels that can allow people to share words, photos, ideas, suggestions, encouragement, sympathy, and prayer. Instead of isolated little enclaves (especially in big cities), we have overlapping circles of communities that expand our horizons, bring us closer together with people we enjoy being with, and allow us to end the loneliness and isolation many of us have felt around us.
As with anything, it can be taken to extremes, and be destructive. People can so isolate themselves from the real world that they become virtual prisoners in their own homes. Most of us are intelligent enough to avoid that fate. The ones who aren't would have found some other way to self-destruct. We can reach out and try to help them, but they are responsible for living their lives, physical or virtual.
The world isn't through changing. Neither is human society. Both will provide challenges for centuries to come. The communities we belong to will help us adapt to those changes, whether those communities are physical or virtual. In the meantime, hang on! It's going to be a wild ride.