Won't you be my neighbour?

Written by Brett Thomas

December 21, 2006 | 16:21

Tags: #forums #web-20

Companies: #bit-tech

"Hey," "Whazzap," even "Yoyoyo..." These are the greetings that start my day off nearly every morning. Each day, I hear from my bit-tech colleagues - the greetings above come from Tim, Rich S, and Wil, respectively. Their morning hellos are so familiar to me now that their faces actually come to mind when I hear similar phrases elsewhere. It's no wonder, really - we're a pretty tightly knit work force.

Except for the fact that I am nearly 3,900 miles away, in the American Midwest.

Of course, to those of you reading this, that probably doesn't even register as out of the ordinary. Each day, we all come together on the bit-tech forums from over 20 countries around the world (last I checked) to talk about the tech industry at large and our own places in it. Nearly 30,000 people join in the conversation - the size of a small town.

"We all come together on the bit-tech forums from over 20 countries"

We celebrate birthdays together, we send each other notes of congratulations when something grand happens. "w00t" and "congrats" are met with with "thx" on a daily basis. We grow close to some members, and make acquaintance with many more. In effect, we are a virtual neighbourhood, each involved in the lives of those we talk to as if they were right next door.

The funny part is, I've never met the people right next door to me. And I know less basic details about some people that I see every day face to face than I know about what Rich might have eaten for lunch.

The irony of the situation hit me when Rich pointed me to a BBC Magazine article called Intimate Strangers. In it, the writer muses on her daily walks to the bus and to work, and notes about the people that she sees every day. The Man in the Panama Hat became the beginnings of her project, where she decided to get to know some of these so-called intimate strangers - people you spent a few minutes of every day with, and likely don't even know their names.

Reading the article made me chuckle a bit, because I believe we've all been there. There is always that guy you see on the street each day - you know his routine, you do the gentlemanly head nod each day as you pass, you even wonder where he is on days that he's absent. I got to thinking about cars I expect to see each morning as I drive to work, or people at the bus stop. It seems that I, too, have a lot of intimate strangers in my life.

And then I realized that her words could have a totally different meaning. I mean, I see Wil probably once or twice a year. Richard, I got to see face to face for the first time only in November. Tim and I have never sat down at the same table, yet I consider him a friend closer to me than many of the people I see regularly here in the States. Each of these guys knows more about my life than many of the people I talk to daily.

When the bombings happened in London, I remember feeling a bit of panic at the possible dangers to my friends and colleagues in the UK - Wil, in particular, was on the tube down to London that day. However, when one of my neighbours had a baby and had two family members die within three weeks of each other, I only found out in casual conversation in the hallway months after the event. Now that I think of it, I don't believe I've spoken to them since.
It appears that gone are the days of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, where the man in the sweater greeted his mailman with a smile and visited his local merchants to talk about their jobs while kids played in the quiet suburban streets. The multicultural neighborhood of Sesame Street at least bridges the gap, and though we now play Counter-Strike instead of basketball, at least it prepares kids for the reality that different cultures exist. But one thing is for sure - the world is not as some of us remember it as kids.

"Online communities are groups of people who you can choose to live with"

At the same time as this societal transformation is amazing, it is equally unsurprising. Online communities (be they in the form of social networking, forums, or even just IM lists) are groups of people who you can choose to live with. There are common interests between the members that bridge most cultural gaps, places where interests can be explored among like minds.

Such a wondrous and fulfilling (virtual) location (for every and all hobbies, some of which aren't fit for print) comes with one severe drawback - people skills are definitely going downhill. On the internet, it is far too easy to let loose with a tirade, or develop a new and mean persona. The anonymous world of cyberspace makes it easy to cheat, defraud, or be just a plain, old, miserable git. And those lessons don't always stay only in cyberspace.

In recent years, kids have been told more and more who to play with, what is or is not a safe activity, where they are permitted to be and when. Cell phones have made instant communication and location possible, and children are left running here and there for their parents' bidding. Your real neighbourhood is now considered 'unsafe' with all the crooks and weirdos and thugs - so why not go someplace nicer?

I'm sure many of you reading this have thought of some or all of this before, but at the turn of the new year (yet again) I feel it warrants some extra attention. Web 2.0, social networking, and other communication have brought the world much closer together, I don't think we can argue that. We cannot deny that we're all moving into our virtual cities - but that doesn't mean we quite have to abandon our real ones. After all, virtual neighbours are great, but a real neighbour can call the cops if your flat is on fire.

(Although a friend of mine once pointed his webcam at a broken window in his house while he went out, so that I could watch out for anyone trying to get in - Ed.)

The holiday time is a great one for knocking on a door and introducing yourself to someone new, in both the virtual and the real world. So whether we're at home on break from uni, taking a bit of time off work, or just wandering down the street and seeing a familiar face, maybe it's time to put out our hands to someone we don't know the name of and introduce ourselves.

And with that, I wish a Happy Holiday to all of my virtual neighbours.
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