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The perils of internet community
Now and Then
roger branch

Humans, species homo sapiens, are social beings. Evidence from the ancient past to present affirms this conclusion. We share this trait with many other species. Our language reflects such pluralities: pride of lions, pack of wolves, herd of bison, gaggle of geese, swarm or hive of bees. Through the ages, humans have lived in communities, starting with families. Members of tribes typically see such groupings as extended kinship networks.

Community offers mutual aid and support, social interaction, physical and social security, personal and social identity and a sense of belonging that reaches beyond the nuclear family. Rural communities of the past typically met most of these basic human needs. 

On the negative side, they often enforced uniformity. Whether they were united by deeply shared beliefs and practices or came to believe and act in common with the rest of the community because these things were “right,” members tended to conform. Frowns, “gentle,” private corrections, public confrontations, gossip and shunning were and still are powerful means of social control.

However, the human needs that have always created communities remain. With the change to towns and cities, other things came to fill at least some of these needs. Churches — especially small to medium-sized ones where members share beliefs and interact face to face — are good examples. 

The period of most rapid growth in church membership in the United States came at the time when the country was changing from rural to urban in nature. Even now, it is interesting to note that some newer churches include the word “community” in their names.

Other examples of movements with some community qualities can be cited, from hippie communes to informal social groups meeting regularly for food, golf or talk about favorite sports teams. And new forms are being invented.

The internet has spawned many avenues of interaction, which is the foundation of community. Many even allow face to face interaction or the manipulated imagery thereof. Some “managers” design focused subject matter groups. 

It is possible to “look up” all sorts of information even though there is no guarantee of accuracy from every source. It is possible to establish contact with all sorts of people from all over the place who share a certain interest, just any sort of certain interest. The claim is that it is possible to make friends. 

I have seen claims by Facebook users that they have thousands of “friends”, but that just means many names have been added to a list of “friends” by the users. I know thousands of people, but my list of real friends is fairly short, composed of kin and folks I have known and loved for decades.

Internet interaction can offer some aspects of community and is deeply attractive to people who are alienated by a depersonalized social world or who do not “fit in” their social milieu. However, to depend upon a world created by internet communication is often foolhardy, even dangerous.

That which is transmitted can be wrong, an intentional fabrication, a lie. There is no real fact-checking. The person using Twitter, TikTok, etc., can be an imposter. He or she can spread a false narrative while knowing that it is not true. Why? Well, perhaps to achieve personal or group goals. I grew up hearing local and state politicians telling lies with straight faces and getting encouraging shouts from their amen corners. 

Location on the political spectrum does not matter because so many people do it for so many reasons. It is easy to manipulate people in a world hungry for community using technology that creates pseudo-community, the manipulated appearance of community.

Perhaps cyber-crime is even more dangerous. Children teethed on internet devices learn to tune in to this alternative reality and often find it more attractive than their everyday worlds. Who can convince them that it is unreal when “friends” they meet there unanimously agree that it is real? 

In spite of state and federal law enforcement agencies that try to detect and arrest predators, children are persuaded to go away with an “attractive friend” only to face rape, sexual slavery and even murder. There are lesser types of mental and emotional manipulation that also go undetected because parents surrender to the domination of electronic “satisfiers” for children who demandingly assert that “everybody else is doing it.”

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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