Communication and Community in a Digital World

Jacques Derrida, the infamous deconstructionist, begins an essay of his with the question, “Is the concept ‘communication’ communicable?” It’s funny stuff, for a Frenchman. After that it all gets a little philosophical, although if you’re of such an intellectual persuasion you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better essay on signatures, events and contexts. But I digress.

I started this blog naively thinking that I would post only poetry. It was going to be ‘pure’, without any of the personal, fluffy writing which characterises many blogs I’d stumbled across that had discouraged me from starting my own much earlier. It was to be a blog that communicated my love of poetry and only that. In my defence, I thought it’d be original. It isn’t.

I then read Kristen Lamb on human authors in a digital age. I don’t agree with everything she says (it’d be a boring world if I did) but she has given me some added ambition, plus a few extremely useful ideas. Most importantly, she made me realise that blogging is, first and foremost, a way to connect with people: to talk to them, rather than at them. I think that simply posting poem after poem very much falls into the ‘talking at you’ category. My bad.

It’s all really quite ironic. My thesis at university considered Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ and a South African writer called Phaswane Mpe’s novel ‘Welcome to Our Hillbrow’ and was all about how these two writers use language to invoke the community which gives that language meaning. Both books set out to re-imagine community and the way we interact with each other and the social and historical structures around us. Both writers use some fascinating techniques to place their readers right at the heart of meaning and narrative within their texts and so implicate them in whatever sense of community they feel on finishing the novels. Which is all just fancy English-speak for saying that both books are awesome and you should read them for the sense of connectedness we all crave and because they will change the way in which you look at your world.

So it occurs to me that, with 500+ followers, I now have a (very small) community built around some of what I have written. This is great because, unlike Morrison and Mpe, I am not bound by book covers and the structure of a novel. We can chat and connect and share links and tag each other’s sites and ideas and form a community far more real than the abstract one that formed the basis of many drawn-out hours of dry academic writing.

This is actually something that occupies a lot of my thought. I love the idea of digital communities, built by hyperlinks between like-minded people and glued together with posts and tags and tweets and re-blogs. It’s all very new and exciting and the possibility it creates is truly mind-boggling. But possibility is a neutral term isn’t it? It is neither good nor bad, simply more achievable. Blogs and bloggers open up a million new doors in Stephen Johnson’s adjacent possible, but some of those doors might lead us places we do not want to go. (I wrote a poem about this, check it out if you’re still reading.)

So, in the spirit of a dead French philosopher’s ideas about communication, my own narrow-mindedness and two amazing writer’s takes on community, let me know what you think of the development of digital communities. Are we able to harness them purely for good? If so, how? If not, why and how do we ensure that they are as positive as possible? Do we even want to prescribe what we think of as ‘positive’ onto a decidedly neutral digital landscape?

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