Ethan Zuckerman asks a great question:
So here’s my pressing question: if the internet gives us new spaces in which to find common ground with very different people, what’s holding us back from becoming vastly more global and cosmopolitan than most of us are? Why, as I’ve argued elsewhere, do we seem to keep sorting ourselves into familiar groups?
The great mathematician Alexander Grothendieck once said “I can only learn what I already almost know” [*]. Entering a new community is difficult. The more unfamiliar the community, the greater the potential gain, but also the harder it is to understand and appreciate the community. There are many communities I’d love to understand and be a witness to, even if I can’t participate in a more active way. But for most of those communities the barrier to entry is high, and it’s easier to stay within the communities I’m already familiar with.
[*] I can’t find the original quote, alas. It is, I believe, a translation from a French original.
Online, there are some special figures that stand out as people who can help broaden our sense of community. They do this, so far as I can see, in two ways. The first group are people who, individually, articulate and exemplify the values of their communities in a way that is extraordinary, and that is also accessible to people outside their community. I love to follow the activities of such people in communities outside my own. I’m thinking of people like Terry Tao, in mathematics. People like Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson in economics. People like David Byrne in music. People like Paul Graham for startup companies. One doesn’t necessarily follow the details of what is being said – I suspect few people can digest Terry Tao’s posts as quickly as he writes them! But the sense of being engulfed by a community is overwhelming when reading these people. One emerges enlarged.
The second group are the bridge-builders. People like Ethan himself, whose blog postings are frequently marvellous invitations to communities of which I know little, and which thus move me a little closer (a la Grothendieck) to being able to appreciate and understand that community for what it is. Posts like his biography of Paul Simon’s Graceland album, or the story of Matt Harding and the song “Sweet Lullaby”. Those posts both connect with me, and connect me to communities I never knew existed. Another bridge figure is Kevin Kelly, who has a wonderful eye for interesting stories and community, whether it be some of the oldest companies in the world, the story of an attempt to create a completely artificial environment for humans, or his musing on a world without technology.
I don’t know how to answer Ethan’s question from the beginning of this post. I do believe that at least part of the solution is to consciously seek out bridge figures, and to deliberately explore unfamiliar communities online. The architecture of the web – its link structure – makes it tempting to become ever more invested in our existing communities, subscribing to yet another blog closely related to our existing interests, way past the point of diminishing returns. I’m finding it more rewarding to consciously set aside at least some fraction of my time for exploring new communities, for finding new bridge figures, and for finding people who exemplify the communities of which they are a part.