I stopped by my local coffee shop today, and while I was grabbing a drink to go, I got into a fun conversation with the guys behind the counter. And it made me stop and think- out of the different choices I have for caffeine pit stops on my way to the client’s office, why is this my favorite? Why is it so superior to my local Starbuck(s)? And I realized it’s totally the baristas. We’ve spoken about wine, comedy, music, and how many pounds of coffee they go through in a week (150 lbs, this one store, one espresso at a time). It’s casual but fun conversation, kinda like Twittering in person. And while I like the people at the Starbucks near me, they don’t greet me by name. Brew-Ha Ha is my version of Cheers or Central Perk. Starbucks is just a place to grab decent coffee.

As I pondered this, I realized that over time, everything has become about community to me. The relationships we build with each other forge bonds and connections that keep us whole and tethered. In his book, Connect:12 Vital Ties That Open Your Heart, Lengthen Your Life, and Deepen Your Soul, Dr. Edward Hallowell talks about to survive, we need warm-hearted connectedness with other humans. Harlow did psychology studies back in the 1950’s that showed monkeys needed nurturing as well as the basics of food and water to turn out well. We need these connections with others for our psychic and physical health.

How does this need for connectedness translate into the online world?  The one people assume takes away from community connectedness in the real world? While we are defining our communities differently in new media, they remain nurturing, caring communities all the same.  And the popularity of  get-togethers like Podcamp, Podcasters Across Borders, BlogPhiladelphia, and the Podcast and New Media Expo are examples of how much “real life” community there really is in this virtual space.
My Top 5 Reasons Why Community Matters:

1. We can make a difference, for others and ourselves, one person at a time. Mother Theresa said “We can’t all do great things; but we can all do small things with great love.” Helping someone with directions; taking the time to hold a door open; answering questions- all of these small acts can really have a big impact on the lives of others. The side benefit is that they make us feel good as well, along with helping others see us in a positive light. You never know when your small action could have a big impact, so by doing the right and generous of spirit thing in the short run will be more likely to lead to bigger payoffs, even if they are just karmic, in the end.

2. Building Towards Something Even Better.  My involvement in community, ranging from the Book Fair at my child’s school, to tutoring, to participating in Podcasting/New Media conferences is all about building strong and more supportive communities.  Whether it’s promoting literacy for children, helping struggling kids do better in school, or meeting up with my new media friends and talking about what matters most to us, all of these activities make the world a slightly better place, even if it is in small ways.  (We’ll work on world peace next week.)

3. You Matter in a Community.  It’s funny, but in my old neighborhood, there were 54 homes.  A lot of people knew each other well, and we used to say that we had the best section of the neighborhood, because we all knew each other, did stuff together, looked out for one another- it was a neighborhood and a community, at least on our end of the street.  Other parts of the neighborhood didn’t have this same kind of connectedness, nor did we know those people very well at all.  Knowing the neighbors, getting their mail when they were out of town,  and all of that small stuff helped build a sense of community and belonging that’s really important.

And every time a neighbor moved, it felt like a real, personal loss.  As those strings broke, the cohesiveness of the community changed, and the flavor changed.  Each person brought their own view and own talents into the larger whole, and thier loss was felt as much as their presence.  When you are part of a community, you bring something to it, whether you realize it or not.  This means your presence or absence changes the community as well.  You matter.

4.Community is not singular, but plural. I can name at least a half-dozen communities I belong to.  This sounds like a lot- how can you meaningfully participate in so many communities?  Communities can be defined with large or small brush strokes, and your participation can be big or small, but still make an impact.   For example, there’s the school community where I tutor.  There’s the PTO stuff at the kid’s school.  There’s the work I’ve done with the Hospital (which I don’t do as much of at present).  There’s the community I’m creating around the LD Podcast; the groups on Maya’s Mom,  Podcamp and Podcasting, twitter,  BlogPhiladelphia, etc.  Each of these communities benefits from a bit of my participation, and I benefit from being part of them as well.  And it’s the diversity of people and interests that is compelling.

Online makes some of it easy.  I can keep up with friends all over through Twitter; there’s email, there’s some stuff that requires in person contact.  But all in all, it’s the participation and connectedness to other people that makes it all worth while.

5. The World Is Changing, and it will all be about community. With the changes that are happening through globalization, the phrase “the global village” is not just a dream, anymore- it’s reality.  I have listeners to my podcast from all over the globe- when I recently heard from a listener in South Africa, I was amazed.  What I do in my home outside Philadelphia is helping someone on the other side of the planet.  How amazingly cool and totally unimaginable to me a year ago.

This means my kids are growing up in a world where their friends and business contacts won’t be just the people in our town or city, but world-wide.  If the things I say from my home can be heard everywhere now, what will happen by the time my kids graduate high school?  College?  And i firmly believe we have a moral obligation to try to make this global village a place thats better- with more understanding and compassion than we often see in te real world.  And that’s all going to happen one person-to-person connection at a time.