Rethinking Community: International Neighborhoods of Interest

Posted on May 7, 2012

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The other day, I accidentally met a neighbor for the first time, eating dinner at the bar of a restaurant in a neighborhood other than the one in which we both live. After chatting for a bit, we realized, much to our surprise, that we live in the same building and on the same floor. In fact, we have lived three doors apart for about five years.

For almost all of history, humans have understood community, organizations, and society in terms of proximity. For most people, the people who are closest to us in terms of physical space are our de facto community and our main concern.

As humans developed the ability to communicate and travel over longer and longer distances, a more transcendent sense of community emerged. A Catholic in France might, for example, claim to have a greater sense of solidarity with a Roman Pope than a Protestant Minister of State. Nevertheless, in practical terms, because people in near proximity have the greatest direct impact on a person’s well-being, it’s they who are most often considered a part of our community — even if it’s sometimes a community of conflict.

Not surprisingly, most organizations understand themselves in terms of proximity: ”everyone in this building is our organization”. Of course, within every reasonably sized organization, there are many smaller communities also based on proximity. An employee’s community becomes the group of people in this department, on this floor, or this daily meeting and everyone else not here near the employee is not part of it. When these little communities lose sight of their common sense of purpose and begin to compete with each other, all organizations suffer and eventually fail.

This kind of breakdown illustrates an important point: if the person in the next cubicle or the team at the end of the hall isn’t a part of my community, even if we have the same brand on our paychecks, there’s no necessary reason to think that the people who work in a different building and collect a paycheck with a different brand on it are not part of my community.

Throw social media into the mix and this point becomes all the more clear. If it’s easier for me to send an email across the planet than it is to walk down the hall, if it’s easier for me to launch a Google hangout with someone in another city than it is to connect with you in the lunchroom, what I count as community changes dramatically and so does my sense of proximity.

And my neighbor?

We haven’t crossed paths yet and I didn’t get her name, so I can’t connect with her on Facebook or Twitter. Meanwhile, I’m talking regularly with people from as far away as New Zealand on a Facebook page I set up for people who value independent thinking, writing, and publishing.

Who are my real neighbors? The answer, I think, is obvious.