Virtual Communities and Digital Neighborhoods
In the digital age, anyone who has access to the Internet is capable of sharing. Because of the convergence of the computer, mobile phone, and the Internet, these devices have become a prominent form of daily communication. Sharing a story online that reaches a person thousands of miles away is now as ordinary as telling the story to your next-door neighbor thanks to the emergence of “virtual communities.”
Howard Rheingold was the first person to coin the term “virtual community.” As Rheingold notes, technology did not cause the rise of virtual communities and online sharing. It simply enabled people to do what they wanted but could not previously do. This important idea suggests that humans are not slaves to their devices, but rather are master communicators always in search of simpler tools to access greater amounts of people. This advanced communication technology has become an extension of our own voices.
The extension of our voices via the Internet has in turn enabled the creation of a new ecology of friendship and teamwork, specifically through online sharing. On the surface, the share button is a simple tool used to forward all kinds of information to a loop of Internet users – your own online neighborhood in a way. Implicitly, however, it represents the ease of means with which we collaborate with others who could be sitting right next to us on a couch or thousands of miles away on another continent.
The power of the share button is immense. According to a new cross-platform report by Nielson, the average American adult spends approximately eleven hours per day – nearly half of the day every day – using electronic media. With the amount of time being spent online, imagine how quickly information from one post or message can travel between digital neighborhoods. The worldwide online community is comparable to the ocean’s waves. Gobs of content flow through the web as messages in bottles, as online users pull information into their own newsfeeds and push identical or updated information out to the rest of the world. Working as one, online neighborhoods spread information into new communities through an economy of information.
The Internet and Accidental Friendships
Nowadays, Internet friendships are becoming the norm. Online chat rooms, dating sites, and niche web forums are all easy ways to virtually meet and communicate with new people that have the same interests as you. Thanks to the evolution of virtual communities combined with the basic human concepts of sharing and interdependence, Internet friendships are formed every day, whether they are intended or accidental.
If you are unfamiliar with these accidental friendships and how they happen, here’s the lowdown. Due to an error made either by a human user or the technology itself, email messages wind up landing in the wrong person’s inbox or pictures in one iPhone user’s photo stream appear in the photo stream of another iPhone user. In 2015, the potential for these exact instances is great.
Two recent stories of strangers separated by thousands of miles befriending each other in real life with the help of virtual communities recently surfaced on my own Facebook newsfeed thanks to the sharing of other online users. The first friendship came as a result of a mistakenly sent email concerning a bachelor party in Philadelphia. Groom-to-be Jeff Minetti and his groomsmen were using an email thread to discuss plans for the upcoming bachelor party. Joey DiJulio, a Seattle native whose email address had been mistakenly added to the thread, soon found himself in the middle of the discussion. He messaged Jeff and his groomsmen:
So, I have no idea who any of you guys are, but I have been enjoying being a fly on the wall hearing about the plans for this bachelor party over the last few months.
I’m assuming my E-Mail address was added to the list by mistake (perhaps a typo of someone else?).
I live out in Seattle, WA and although for a moment I thought it might be funny to just show up and be that guy nobody knows but everyone wonders “who is that guy?”, buying a plane ticket for a cross-country flight just to crash a bachelor’s party might be a bit over the top (although it would be epic!).
Nonetheless, I do hope you guys have a great time and I’d like to take a moment to wish the best of luck in life to the groom!”
After unanimous excitement from the wedding party, Jeff personally invited Joey to the wedding, telling him that if he could make it to Philly then Joey would be his best man. After some consideration, Joey set up a GoFundMe page, reached his initial goal, and flew to Philadelphia to meet his new friends. Without the accidental addition of an email address, Joey would have never communicated with these new friends. And without the widespread support from the Internet community, through both advice and monetary donations, Joey would not have turned his thought of attending the wedding into a physical reality.
The second accidental friendship was created out of the theft of one man’s iPhone. BuzzFeed writer Matt Stopera’s iPhone was stolen in February 2014 at a bar in New York City. About a year later, Matt was looking through his photo stream on his new iPhone when he noticed a collection of pictures that he did not take himself, the oddest one being of an Asian man in front of an orange tree. After learning that most stolen iPhones wind up in China, Matt realized that this man must have purchased his old phone and had not logged out of his iCloud account. The story should be over here, but after writing about this man and his pictures in an article on BuzzFeed, Matt and the mysterious man who came to be known as Brother Orange gained instant fame on the Internet.
Through various social media platforms including Twitter and Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter, Matt communicated with Brother Orange and new fans thousands of miles away from New York City. The fans loved Matt and Brother Orange, and soon there was a campaign to fly Matt over to China in order to meet the owner of his old iPhone face to face. Matt’s visit to China solidified his friendship with Brother Orange, but it never would have come to fruition without the vast network of fans.
Collaborating for Friendship
These two stories are a combination of human error, technological error, and a little bit of coincidence. The inspiring, collaborative aspect of these stories was accomplished by the masses, the online bystanders who are both watching everything unfold and also contributing to the cause through methods of sharing. What exactly do these online bystanders get out of the sharing process themselves? Most often they receive nothing but satisfaction in participating. This is what an ecology of friendship and teamwork is at its core: many digital neighborhoods collaborating to spread information and bring people together.
In the chitchat by the CNN reporters at the very end of this interview with Matt, the reporters allude to the collaboration of virtual communities. Without the passing of the baton “of a couple million Chinese netizens,” Matt and Brother Orange may have never met. Thus, their friendship would have never existed in the real world.
All in all, the Internet is a microcosm of the real world. Virtual communities act as representations of communities in the physical world. And in the physical world, you often discover friendships at random or through another friend. Maybe your best friend was the kid you rode the bus with freshman year of high school, or that guy you were randomly paired with as a roommate in college. Friendships formed via the Internet are no different. What makes the friendships between Jeff and Joey or Matt and Brother Orange so interesting is that they were created out of the collaboration of numerous Internet users, whole communities even, most of whom have not even met each other. These friendships were crafted by other people spreading the “message in a bottle,” not from an algorithm on an online dating site.
When we share with virtual communities, what are we actually sharing? Is it something concrete or abstract? Is it just words in a story, or is it a feeling from an experience that we want others to feel too? Whatever it is that we share is ultimately putting an end to, or at least beginning to erase, cultural and geographical boundaries that currently exist in the physical world.