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Psychology of Technology: On-line Communities: The Kindness of Strangers

For those of you who follow my Psychology of Technology blog posts (especially here and here), you know that I’m a bit cynical about how technology is impacting us, particularly when it comes to how we define relationships. My worries aren’t so great that I’m looking to wipe out our communications grid with an electromagnetic pulse or anything like that (Instant Quiz: Can you tell me what long-cancelled television show was based on that premise and who starred in it?), but the ways in which new media have changed our ability to establish relationships have me concerned.

But this post isn’t about all the problems that new media may cause. To the contrary, I want to honor a truly wonderful aspect of this rapidly emerging and evolving technology. I’m talking about the on-line communities that offer knowledge bases, forums, and collaboration in an area of common interest.

Having been a part of several technology-related communities, as both a user and a contributor, I am truly amazed at the generosity of spirit, expertise, and time that members devote to helping one other. I have experienced this munificence first hand many times. One such occasion occurred recently with an Italian fellow, whose real job is as a journalist, who spent hours over several days exchanging emails with me helping to solve a problem and create something new on my mobile phone. Whenever I had a question, he had an answer. He didn’t know me from Adam, yet he was willing gave his time and expertise to me. And for nothing more than a heart-felt thanks.

These corporeally disconnected communities, paradoxically enough, show people the very best that humanity has to offer – generosity, cooperation, patience, time, respect, compassion – to total strangers! I say paradoxically because I often wonder why people devote themselves to these communities. There are few obvious rewards for the experts in these communities who create knowledge bases, offer tutorials, and provide answers to “noobie” (new members of the community) questions. There are few financial incentives (developers can solicit donations for products they create, but I’m pretty sure they don’t cover the mortgage). It’s not likely to foster career advancement for most of those involved; contributors’ work lives are often entirely unrelated to the community’s focus. For example, in one mobile-technology community in which I am involved, some of the experts include an attorney, an auto-parts distributor, a chemist, and several college students). And there is usually some price that is paid for such involvement, mostly time not devoted to work or family (I tell my wife that it’s better I’m into technology than porn!).

Yet the rewards, though less tangible, are obviously there. The experts in these communities can attain something of a god-like status to worshipping noobs and junior members who get thoughtful and detailed answers to their many questions. Now that I have attained a degree of competence (though far from expertise) in several on-line communities, I take great pride in finding answers to some of those questions. And, in return, what these communities have in abundance is the sincerest appreciation and gratitude from those who have been helped.

At a deeper level, despite these relatively small rewards, members devote time and energy to the community because of their passion for the topic, their desire to help others, and their wish to connect with those who share that passion. What pervades these communities is a deep feeling of altruism from its members. There’s just too much give and not enough take to see it any other way.

I’ve also been amazed at the kind of relationships that develop in these communities, particularly among the hard-core insiders who administer and contribute regularly to them. I’ve been fortunate be a part of the “staff” of one particular on-line community and the banter among us on the staff emails is little different than if we were a bunch of guys hanging out in one of our backyards. We know little about each other and will likely never meet, but we act like we’ve known each other for years. I think it is that distance and what I might call controlled anonymity (you only have to share what you want with others) that creates the level of comfort and openness that constantly surprises me. On-line communities like ours transcend pretty obvious geographical, cultural, and political differences (it’s often just fodder for mutual ribbing). And, to be honest, if we actually ever met, I’m not sure we would all get along because of those differences. I say that as a compliment, not a criticism, of on-line communities because it shows that if people focus on what they have in common, then it’s possible to rise above those areas in which they differ. The result is mutual respect, appreciation, as close to friendship as can develop on line, and a community in the truest sense of the word.