Creating and Discovering Community in the Digital World – for IBM

by rthieme on April 4, 1997

Creating and Discovering Community in the Digital World


Richard Thieme

We think of artifacts as physical constructs, but the symbolic artifacts that constitute our individual and collective mental maps of the world are no less substantial. Our belief systems are built of those symbolic artifacts; often unaware of their presence, we inhabit a complex modular structure that generates the “space” or matrix of possibilities for our lives.

Before the emergence of the digital world and the various electronic interfaces to it, most of us lived in a world defined by printed text. We spoke of writers creating “communities of readers;” if the book was “good,” our models of ourselves and the world were changed.

Reading is as creative an act as writing. We bring to the experience a capacity to recreate the world disclosed by the text. While each of us may in fact have a unique experience of that world, we use symbolic markers to define our shared experience. When those markers are fused with ritual behaviors — behaviors that are meaningful and repetitive — we build and sustain a community life that is self-validating.

The digital world symbolized by the Internet represents a new, higher level of abstraction in the way we construct our “mental models.” The longer we interact in and through it by chatting, building virtual worlds and avatars to represent ourselves. downloading files, and exchanging email, the more rapidly we will forget how different the “space it creates” is from what we knew before.

We all begin life with infantile self-interest. Hopefully we learn to transcend that egoistical state as we mature, learning that mutual self interest serves all of us better and includes our higher as well as lower needs.

Web sites begin as outposts of self-interest, designed to sell and distribute artifacts or experiences, to convince or persuade. Like readers of books, our interaction with the symbolic artifacts we encounter and with one another in proxy forms immediately creates a community of shared interest, but if that community is not sustained, magnified or accelerated by design, it dissipates. Community on the Internet often resembles a time-lapse image of a flower opening, losing its petals, and dying all in a matter of seconds.

If we could accelerate an image of a medieval village channelling its resources over centuries to build a cathedral, then observed the inhabitants returning to that cathedral time and again to engage in mood-altering, community-building rituals, we would see something similar. The depth of community feeling, however, and the strength of the bonds that sustain it are proportional to time invested and to the quality of the shared experience. That quality is characterized above all by the exchange of information and high energy, an interactive experience that is intrinsically rewarding, and a growing sense of a boundary around the community that separates it from others.

So we may begin in self-interest, but if the site is well designed and includes flexible structures that facilitate and guide evolutionary growth, we are transformed into a community.

Over time, co-creation becomes unconscious, and life online is experienced as an ongoing discovery. We literally forget ourselves. Creation and discovery are always, however, the front and back of the same experience.

Richard Thieme ([email protected]) is a professional speaker, business consultant, and writer focused on the impact of computer technology on individuals and organizations.

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