On my brother’s birthday: Thoughts on community

by Mr. Sheehy

Today is my brother’s birthday – 27! WoW! You’re old too! – and as I contemplate posting you a birthday message that the entire world can see, I find myself thinking about this community that we Web 2.0 nerds are so excited about. We can connect in a million ways: text messages, picture messages, email, chat, IM, Skype, Twitter, blogging, wikis, video-blogging (I’m not ready to call this vlogging yet), music-list sharing (I won’t acknowledge the other sharing – call it a principled stand), personal space, and more I am not aware of, I realize.

And though we are in a tech-savvy generation, I feel like we’re a bit more with-it in technology than many of our peers. I suppose that’s the product of growing up in a house where email was not so impressive an invention, because Dad had been chatting through a computer and amateur radios before we knew talking with people on the other side of the world was supposed to be a big deal. You can email and talk to someone in Barbados? Whoopee – Dad’s got three postcards from Ham operators there.

But the funny thing about all this excitement over connecting with one another is that it misses the connections that seem to have been the deepest in my life, and certainly in our relationship. Research shows (and so does experience, at least in my case) that it is possible to form a community through entirely online means. The main characteristic of these communities is that the folks have a common goal or task. In education, we form a learning community, and once the learning is accomplished, we move to other pursuits and the community disbands.

But you and I have never had official common tasks, and as far as I can remember, I haven’t really had such tasks with any of my closest companions. We didn’t pursue something together, we just hung around.

That’s what counts so much in relationships, isn’t it? Just hanging around until you have a bond of such depth that it likely won’t break? And so our relationship is built on things that IM can’t capture. How do you experience sitting around watching TV together (without talking) over a cell phone? Or riding to school and church in complete silence, over email? Or getting so used to hearing the other person sleeping in a bed a few feet away that you don’t notice it till it’s not there, on a Skype chat or MySpace page?

Obviously it can’t be done, but that’s how relationship is formed. As we find, with you in Massachusetts and me in South Dakota, it can be maintained differently, but not formed differently. Relationship forming is time spent in each other’s presence, and the activity is a far second place issue.

So happy birthday to my brilliant brother, who recognized at two years old that the best way to get a frisbee out of a bush was to chuck the ball after it. That, at least, was smarter than trying to climb up from the inside, where you would have likely gouged an eye.

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