Language morphs over time. No, this is not another diatribe how certain words and phrases are being forced into existence and use. This is about the natural change of a specific word. That word is “community.” Not too long ago, “community” referred to a group of people living in the same general area, working towards making their neighborhood a great place to live - a place to return to after a long day of work, a place where you can raise a family.
Different communities had characteristics that set them apart from others. Age is a big differentiator. There are retirement communities for older folks, apartments shared by young, single individuals, and suburban neighborhoods where families tend to migrate; even college campuses offered a sense of community. Communities can form based on race, religion, political affiliation, proximity to urban areas, and financial success or lack thereof. The bottom line is that communities used to be built based on the neighborhoods that were physically inhabited by a group of likeminded individuals and family units.
That is no longer the case. These days, “communities” are created based on interests. One no longer needs to even meet other members of their “community” in person. In fact, one can belong to a “community” of people without even ever having heard a word another has said, or seen a picture of the anyone else in the “community.”
This started out on much more broad terms. The black community, the LGBT community, the Jewish community. These all incorporated individuals under an umbrella, and while some may live near each other, physical proximity was not what kept people inside the community. It was something deeper: race, religion, orientation.
But this has gotten out of hand. “Communities” are now made up of people who root for certain sports teams, share a love of the same hobby, or even frequent the same businesses and wear the same brand clothing. In fact, businesses have started picking up on this, marketing themselves as a “community” of people. I see this in my own life. In order to commute to work, I purchased a Onewheel, which is an electric skateboard. There are “Onewheel communities” that are marketed to Onewheel users. Enthusiasts go on joyrides together.
Now don’t get me wrong - there is nothing problematic at all with a group of people coming together to experience a hobby together. The issue is with calling this a “community.”
I had been baffled by this phenomenon of the sudden increase in faux communities popping up all the time. And it was not until I heard Alia Bulow of “Core on the Deep Meaningful Conversations” podcast. She was discussing this topic by bringing up the book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. This book discusses three main types of connections one has with others: intimate (spouse, close friends, etc.), relational (wider friendship circles and immediate community), and collective (nationhood, religious group, political affiliation). Bulow points out that a person who is missing even one of those things feels desperately lonely.
The irony of the internet age is that it has simultaneously brought us closer together than ever before while removing a lot of the person-to-person contact we used to enjoy. This, combined with the ever-diminishing religious affiliation in the country today results in the inevitability to fill the voids left by all three connection types. People do this by finding others online who share interests, and create their own “communities” in hopes of removing that loneliness they may feel as though they have entered.
There are two predictable outcomes of this. First, corporations will try to turn any flash-in-the-pan concept into a marketing ploy, so they have begun using the unstable traditional community as a way for consumers to feel a part of something simply by calling their product’s users a “community.” How many online video games have developed a virtual community at this point, and social media goes without saying. The obvious ploy by corporations is to capitalize on consumers’ insatiable appetite for belonging.
But that is the lesser evil of the two predictable outcomes. What happens when someone is so outcast from society that the only place to go is the darkest corners of the internet, where minds are easily corrupted and manipulated? We all know these sections exist, and the reason they are so popular is because so many don’t have an actual community which to belong. And this is the worst possible outcome for someone seeking to escape the depression caused by not being a part of an actual community. They find a new community, get corrupted, and potentially follow a path of self-destruction - or something far, far worse.
It is up to us to save the traditional community. Without a real sense of belonging to a physical environment, companies can commandeer the term, bad people can use it to their advantage, and corruptible minds can be easily manipulated.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.