As a missionary kid, I spent a big chunk of my life living in community.
I don’t mean just a small town, I mean living with 20-30 people in close quarters, like sometimes in the same room.
Most of my parents’ friends know more about me than I remember about myself.
I’m often reminded that when I was living in the Rax mountains of South Eastern Austria in the late 70s, I sometimes confused my two languages – German and English – in rather amusing ways.
When I learned that my pet fishes had babies, I ran around yelling “The fishes had sex! The fishes had sex!”
Of course my 6-year-old self wouldn’t really have known about the birds and the bees at that point, so the adults quickly figured out that I was using the German word for the number six. I was just trying to tell people how many baby fishes there were.
In our community, we ate together, gathered for meetings and worship every day and often recreated together too. Our lives were as intertwined as any group of humans living together can be.
I’ve lived in many communities over the course of my life so far. Some large and some small, some diverse and some with too many similarities for comfort.
My education was comprised of teachers from many nations and backgrounds.I did not lack for any information I wished to attain, in the normal business of life. If I wanted to know how to whistle, I merely asked any adult who seemed good at whistling how to do it.
If I wanted to understand how lightening worked, I found the former scientist living with us. Of course I asked my dad everything too, because if he confirmed it, then it must be true.
I never lacked for anything to do. There were always people available to talk to. I rarely grew bored, because communities are frenetic hives of activity, and watching the dynamics of humans living in close quarters is the best entertainment available.
As proven by the fact that we did not have a television until many years later.
One day we moved back to America, and I grew up and bought a house on a street on the East side of the city of Missoula, Montana.
It was not a little pink house, as John Cougar Mellencamp sings about. It was a little green house with a front porch and a detached garage.
My friends and neighbors encouraged me to put up a fence. They told me to build a six-foot-tall fence around my house to give me privacy. Other people told me to put in a fancy security system and an iron door to keep out the riffraff.
Some told me to get a dog, while others wondered why I didn’t buy a remote property and build my house far away from so much humanity.
What all of these people don’t understand is that I spent my whole life living with many people, and the idea of suddenly trying to keep them out by fence or security system or dog just doesn’t resonate with me at all.
As I grow up into my 40th year on earth, I’m reminded of how different this life here in America really is.
We live in our fine country homes, our suburban palisades with grass lawns and garden gnomes and Saturday projects all wadded up on the workbench.
They’re not all pink, but they might as well be. Because we have an arsenal to protect us, a Fort Knox to defend against the incursion of ordinary citizens for the most part.
I’m realistic enough to know we cannot remedy our current living conditions. I know that we will not likely live in small communities again, not with more than 7 billion people moving around on this planet.
When Thefacebook launched in 2004, it was little evolved past the college female rating system it had originally been designed as.
What Facebook’s creator Mark Zuckerberg couldn’t have foreseen was that it would be taken over by people either hungry for community or who already intricately understood community.
Facebook rapidly spread beyond the college campuses and into our lives, and for the last 10 years, it has been a de facto community for us made up of friends, family and acquaintances or any combination thereof.
Communities are places where we live close together, where there are no secrets, because most things are obvious through observation or proximity.
I mostly see people trying to turn Facebook into little pink houses these days.
When you spend more than half your posts warning your friends and family about security or privacy threats on Facebook, you’re using it wrong.
Facebook, and social media in general, is a place where we live our lives out loud. It’s a place where we post the good things along with the bad things, because just like any community, you’re sharing your life by proximity with others.
I can’t see you and hear you every day in a virtual community, so we use words, pictures, sounds and videos to display our lives for others.
It is this balance of the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly that makes Facebook such a wonderful window into the lives of those we love, though they live far away in little pink houses with high fences and elaborate security systems.
Done correctly, Facebook is one of the best things to happen to society since we subdivided our lives into half-acre lots.
Perhaps our adoption of it was in response to the sadness of so many walls and barriers to community. Perhaps this little accident of a digital world we can all inhabit together was a place where we could begin to build meaningful fire pits of conversation and communion.
Those of us who work in the media and others in marketing and business are frustrated by Facebook for limiting how many people can see our messages posted through our Facebook pages.
We spent a lot of time building up large fan bases in order to market our material directly to people who do not buy newspapers, watch the news at 5 or listen to the radio on their car stereos.
And now Facebook is controlling how many of our own followers we reach.
But you know what? This is actually a really good thing for you. Because it means the people who run Facebook have recognized the underlying value of the community rather than the platform as it pertains to wealth from advertising.
This is not to say that Facebook doesn’t want to make money. It’s a publicly traded company after all.
But the controlling shareholders have recognized the long-term value of creating a habitat that fosters community rather than sell off its billions of users for profit and kill the experience.
They’ve recognized the long game, and rather than getting rich quick, they are investing in an idea that has been around a lot longer than the industrial revolution and capitalism.
We all need community, and we need it desperately.
Every day we spend in our little pink houses with fancy security systems, is another day bereft of the value others bring to our lives.
And no, our nuclear families are not enough. We have need of a diversity of tastes, desires, opinions and thoughts in our lives, and as great as our close family members are, they can’t possibly give us what we truly need.
And if you’re not on Facebook or other social media, then you have one less thing than to worry about. One less way of doing community wrong.
And you’re probably one step closer to doing community right. Perhaps you fill your time with family and friends, with a diversity of tastes, experiences, opinions and thoughts.
I envy you.
Because I live in a little pink house on a subdivided, half-acre lot. Because even though I don’t use fences and fancy security systems to keep people out, I have employed other methods to keep people at a distance.
So I live my life out loud on Facebook. It’s skewed a little more toward good than bad, but it’s a fairly honest representation of where I’m at at any given moment.
I’m an optimistic person, and it takes a lot to really get me down in the dumps, but if I’m there, you can bet I will probably let those in my community know about it.
Is there a point to this essay?
If there is, then it is this: Don’t spend your time on social media trying to contain the potential for community. Instead, embrace that potential, and then let it flow into your life in a way that has real, not virtual, ramifications.
Good ol’ John Cougar Mellencamp might have said it best –
“Well, there’s people and more people
What do they know, know, know?
Go to work in some high rise
And vacation down at the Gulf of Mexico
Ooh yeah, and there’s winners and there’s losers
But they ain’t no big deal
‘Cause the simple man, baby, pays for the thrills
The bills, the pills that kill
Oh, but ain’t that America for you and me
Ain’t that America somethin’ to see baby
Ain’t that America home of the free
Little pink houses for you and me”