In today’s fast-paced and mobile society, the idea of going next door to borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor may seem a bit outdated. Over the course of just a few decades, the very definitions of “neighbor,” “neighborhood” and “community” have changed drastically. It’s just as easy to chat online with a friend in China as it is to text a friend who lives down the street. The Internet and social media have altered the way that we communicate with and relate to our peers, coworkers and families. While online outlets can help build relationships, they cannot (and should not) replace the interactions we have in the physical world.
For many members of the baby boom generation, today’s online world may seem overwhelming, while members of the millennial generation cannot imagine a world without Facebook. “When I was a child, neighbors were more like an extension of your family,” says Debbie Lancaster, who works at Life University’s College of Undergraduate Studies and has seen firsthand how technology has changed human interaction over the years. “Nowadays, and I hate to admit this, I don’t even know most of my neighbors’ first names.” Lancaster isn’t alone—according to a June 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, only 29 percent of Americans knew some of their neighbors and 28 percent knew none of their neighbors by name.
Much of the shift is due to our increased mobility. Previously, “Communities were bound by time, proximity and location, and were more homogeneous in nature,” explains Peggy Samples, Ph.D., head of LIFE’s psychology department. But between commuting from home to work and shuttling kids to their after-school activities, we have less time to sit down and have coffee with our neighbors. Digital communities have sprung out of our continued need for social interaction.
Yet, ironically, despite our mobility, we may be connecting with fewer people than we were before the technology boom. That’s because people who are uncomfortable with technology, or are naturally shy or reserved, may not be fully participating in the digital universe. “Young people as compared to older people are, on average, more comfortable utilizing email, texting and social media,” points out Samples.
There is no denying that the Internet has forever changed the world. The question remains, is this change good or bad? For most people, online communities supplement physical ones, and vice versa. Mark Huvenaars, social media and marketing liaison for LIFE, notes that many events or get-togethers are planned online, but carried out in person. “A group of students may organize a study group on Facebook or a chiropractor may send out online invites to a health talk, but the physical connection is at the core of the digital messaging,” he says.
Huvenaars knows the benefits of connecting online firsthand. He spent two years working on LIFE’s campus in Marietta, Ga., but recently moved to Canada and continues his work remotely. “Even though most of my interaction with my LIFE colleagues is through email and online, I still feel that the digital community serves to enhance the physical community rather than replace it,” he says. Huvenaars also says that an expressive online community is a clear indication of the broader sense of the offline community.
Online communities also have the benefit of exposing us to new people and ideas, which creates an openness to diversity. “This, in turn, can decrease prejudice and discrimination,” says Samples. At the same time, the Internet allows people to connect and share their experiences, which can be helpful for people who may be dealing with illness or other issues. “Virtual communities offer greater opportunities for people to connect anonymously with others that have similar problems, thus providing a safe haven for reciprocal self-disclosure,” says Samples.
Today’s students have much to gain from technology. In the classroom, media can be used to explain difficult concepts or to more fully engage students in a discussion. Samples often sees positive interactions play out among her students. “They get to know one another and interact on a regular basis in the classroom, but they develop a virtual community to support their offline interactions,” she says. Technology also affects the relationships between students and teachers in an academic setting. “We get to do PowerPoints and videos and streaming that we could never have done before, all at a moment’s touch,” says LIFE psychology professor Lisa Rubin. Students are constantly connected to an abundance of information, which may allow instructors to focus less on lecturing and more on facilitating conversations, says Huvenaars.
Being constantly connected to one another and to our online communities has its downside, too, most noticeably when it comes to our ability to communicate our needs and emotions. In the virtual world, it is easy to present only a part of yourself to the community, which means some communication may not be as authentic as it would be otherwise. Samples notes that most communication is nonverbal, meaning it is displayed through gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice. Not being able to read those cues increases the chances that people miscommunicate or inadvertently hurt someone else’s feelings. “Because the primary mode of communication [online] is through the written word, people can methodically choose what aspects of themselves (authentic or not) they present to the community,” says Samples. Additionally, the anonymity provided by the Internet may lead people to say things they may not normally say in casual conversation.
The risks inherent in miscommunication are more detrimental in some professional fields than others. Rubin notes that, depending on the profession, it can be dangerous to have communication solely through email. Especially in the field of psychology, she says that she is more comfortable hearing someone’s tone of voice, in order to better gauge their state of mind. As Samples points out, “Nothing in the virtual world can substitute for the physical contact and warmth—a handshake, hug or kiss on the cheek—that can be obtained in the physical community.” This is particularly relevant for fields that depend on physical contact, such as Chiropractic.
These days, online communities are not limited to the amorphous worlds of Facebook and Twitter. Sites like Nextdoor.com and Neighbortree.com combine the physical neighborhood with the virtual one. These sites allow people who live in a particular neighborhood to set up secure websites accessible only to other neighborhood residents. For Nextdoor.com, which was launched in October 2011 and is available in 45 states, a founding member sets up the site for their neighborhood and invites other people to join. The member can establish neighborhood boundaries, and the site will then verify invitees’ addresses to ensure that they actually live within those boundaries.
According to Kelsey Grady, senior communications manager for Nextdoor.com, the site’s founders were looking for a way to connect people with the community closest to them. Nextdoor.com combines the accessibility of Facebook with the utility of Yelp or Angie’s List—residents can post about everything from a neighborhood get-together to items for sale to plumber recommendations. They can also use it to post information about a missing child or suspicious activity that’s been observed in the area. In that sense, says Grady, the site is the equivalent of “pulling the fire alarm.” “People are using it as a 21st-century neighborhood watch,” she says, and residents can choose to be notified of neighborhood alerts via email or text message.
Grady says the site is not meant to replace physical connections, but rather to bring back a sense of community that has been lost over the past few years. “When people meet online, it’s an icebreaker to meeting offline,” she says. Research seems to support this observation. According to a 2009 report by the Pew Research Center titled “Social Isolation and New Technology,” participation in a neighborhood forum increases a person’s real-world engagement with their neighbors. For example, knowing your next-door neighbor’s name makes it more likely that you will talk to him the next time you see him walking his dog. “The conversations you see on Nextdoor.com are very different than what you see on Facebook. It’s very concrete, solving problems in the community,” Grady says.
At the end of the day, humans are social beings who can benefit from both online and offline communities. “Social support networks can buffer the effects of stressors, ultimately leading to greater psychological wellbeing such as decreased depression, anxiety and loneliness,” says Samples. In order to maintain healthy relationships, it is important to find a balance between the physical and the virtual. Lancaster says that achieving this balance will help future generations “thrive and blossom into more resourceful and meaningful individuals.” In addition to core education and techniques, Huvenaars notes that LIFE has a responsibility to provide students with the “skills to ‘lead the vital health revolution’ in their communities,” which includes communication and relationship skills. So the next time you post on a friend’s Facebook wall, be sure to supplement that with giving another friend a hug.