Thoughts of a geek

14 May 2012

Community (The Blog Roll topic 1)

Some friends and I somehow ended up agreeing to try blogging about a series of topics together. For some reason this initiative is called “The Blog Roll”. The first topic is “community”. Perhaps there will be more. So far Melanie, Frith and Polly have blogged on the topic; Daniel and Valerie may also do so at some point. Perhaps other people will decide to join in as well.

So. Community. What can I say about it? I think it is important. It is a fairly vague word that can be used with a variety of different meanings. And it keeps coming up.

I am not very good at contemplating on demand.

Well! Another week has passed. I will try to at least flesh out something from my notes.

One form of community is a group of people who happen to be in the same place regularly. When this happens they tend to at least recognise each other’s faces, and sometimes friendships and deeper community develop. One factor in how much this happens is how big the group is; as groups get bigger there is less opportunity to talk to each individual person for an extended period of time — assuming the time spent together remains constant and that it is split evenly between the people present then the amount of time per person is inversely proportional to the number of people in the group. How much the people in the group have in common also tends to have a significant effect, be it age, situation, common interests or whatever else. What the people are doing and how much opportunity it allows to talk to others and get to know them is also a big factor. I find that walking often works quite well for this, as it tends to break a larger group up into smaller groups of 2–4, while also allowing people to move around between these smaller groups. Situations like working in an office, where everyone is busy at their own desk most of the time, are less conducive.

On the other hand, I found Memphis (the graduate computer science lab at VUW) to be a stronger community, even though on the face of it it seems like a rather similar situation to such an office environment: a bunch of people sitting in front of computers doing their own thing. I think there were a number of reasons for this. One was the presence of (comfortable, old and somewhat dodgy) couches, where people could hang out and chat. While this could sometimes be distracting for those working, it also led to lots of interesting conversations about all sorts of topics, and encouraged an environment where people could ask others for help. Shared music (through the oft-rewritten Memphis stereo system) also contributed significantly, I think. Sharing other people’s choice in music provides a connection in itself I think, it provides some feeling in common. And speaking of the stereo, projects like writing the stereo software and that for Fridge also provided opportunities to work together with other people on interesting and open-ended projects outside of coursework, which also served to build relationships and community. Memphis also organised a number of social and sports events outside of the lab, and built a shared culture through things like the Memphis painting hack, t-shirts and badges. It is a pity that it all died so quickly once the lab was closed and things were restructured for the new engineering degree, but that is often the way in the university environment, with a fresh new group of students coming through each year not knowing much about what has gone before.

Another form of community is when people join particular groups. I distinguish this from the first form because the first is mostly people who just happen to be through together by work, study or something else, while this second form is more a matter of choice, perhaps specifically for the purpose of meeting other people. There is certainly some overlap though. The group may be one that meets together physically, as clubs tend to, or it may be online or through some other mechanism. The #wellingtonlunchchat IRC channel is an example of the latter — a group of people who used to work or study together, who now have mostly moved on to other places, across a number of countries, but still keep in touch on a daily basis in many cases, if in a fairly low-key way. The channel originally started as a way to organise meeting for lunch with those working in other offices in Wellington, but always ended up being more about general procrastination, techy news and asking for help and advice with programming issues.

Examples which come to mind of such groups which did meet together in real life were the two main clubs I was part of at university: Interface and VUWCU. I am still in touch with many people whom I met through both; in fact I think they make up the majority of my friends from Wellington. This suggests that they did something right.

A third form I will categorise is wider communities, where one is a part without knowing the majority of the other people in the community, yet shares some common bond. This is a looser sort of community, yet can be quite cool sometimes, when one can feel like part of something bigger. Perhaps this is important. The common bond of such a community could be some major part of life like religious belief (say the wider Christian community), common interests (people sometimes talk about the geek community as such an entity) or just a common hobby (swing dancing, or Lindy Hop in particular!).

A couple of examples of such connections with a wider community which I thought were cool come to mind. The first was when a friend and I were travelling around Scandinavia and spent a night in Oslo, where we stayed with a group of Christian students in their flat near one of the universities. We did not know any of them personally, but my friend had a connection with one of the people in the flat through some mutual friend through IFES, and they were happy to have us to stay when we visited. Even better, it just so happened that the night we were staying was their weekly community night and so we got to eat dinner together with them all and the two adjacent flats, learn a new card game, and then we all sung a few hymns together in Norwegian. Despite being in a foreign country and not speaking the language, we had something in common. And interestingly I found it easier to pronounce Norwegian words when trying to sing along with a bunch of other people.

The second example was just through swing dancing, Lindy Hop in particular. It is quite cool to be able to go along to a dance anywhere in the world and find people who know the same steps and enjoy the same music, and just be able to dance with people with whom you might not have much else in common. I was in Toronto earlier this year, as I had a week in Kitchener-Waterloo for work and so flew into Toronto and spent the preceeding weekend staying there with a friend. It just so happened that the weekend I was in town was the weekend of the Toronto Swing Dance Exchange, so I dragged my friend along and we went to the Saturday night of it. It was the first time I had done any swing dancing outside of London, so I found it particularly cool just to be able to show up, in a new country, and dance with a whole bunch of people I had not met before, and perhaps never will again. A bigger community!

I was thinking about writing about online community as a fourth form, but I think it is already covered by the other forms: either particular groups like #wellingtonlunchchat, or wider communities like Reddit. Perhaps blogging comes in somewhere here too? Can the ‘blogosphere’ be considered a community, or is it too loose and disconnected?

Community flats probably bear a mention, though I have had mixed experiences there. I have only been in one flat that was explicitly a ‘community flat’ (it even had a blog), but I think I found more community (Can community be compared like that? Closer relationships, perhaps?) in the flat I lived in after that, although it was not particularly organised as a community flat per se. We just happened to get on pretty well, chatting and eating together quite a bit without it being an explicit aim. We still had our conflicts, of course, but on the whole it was pretty good. Perhaps trying to force community is a bad idea? Or perhaps it was just that everyone was really busy and stressed for other reasons, and there were a number of personality conflicts.

On the other hand, there are certainly things that can be done to encourage community. I think the physical layout of a house can make a big difference. Being on a single level, with rooms arranged around a central living room or kitchen can be helpful as people in their bedrooms can hear what is going on and join in. Just having a nice comfortable living room where people want to hang out by default makes a big difference, and having enough room for everyone. That can perhaps be tricky in somewhere like London where space at a premium, and long narrow terraced houses are common. Perhaps some architects out there would like to look at designing houses to encourage communal living in big cities while being space-efficient?

I was thinking of writing more comparing London and Wellington, but I am not too sure what to say, and this post is getting too long as it is, so I think I will just post it (at last). Perhaps that will be a topic for another time, or perhaps not. Hmm, there might be something more to write about music here too, and how it ties people together. But enough for now. In the mean time, what are your thoughts? Comments? Any questions?

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5 Comments »

  1. It’s funny how often the natural community can develop in places, working better than when you have to put the initial effort in to create it – yet I think if we only gravitated into our ‘natural’ communities we wouldn’t be living out the gospel.

    Comment by melmylvaganam — 10 June 2012 @ 12:24 pm

  2. Your blog was the catalyst for mine more than anything, especially this: “Perhaps trying to force community is a bad idea?” so that’s my thoughts comments questions. but I’m commenting anyway.

    Comment by Daniel Sherson — 12 June 2012 @ 11:46 pm

  3. Well, I think old, dodgy couches in labs and study rooms are the single greatest facilitator of post-grad community around.

    Comment by Frith — 13 June 2012 @ 5:27 pm

    • They are definitely an important factor! Especially when combined with common projects, common interests, and common pressures.

      Comment by qwandor — 22 July 2012 @ 8:50 am

  4. […] really different faces of the same issue? I think at least part of the problem here comes back to community. At least in my case, the times when I find myself unhappy or unstimulated and not having enough to […]

    Pingback by Busyness and loneliness « Thoughts of a geek — 22 July 2012 @ 10:37 am


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