Nature of Community Is Changing in the Internet Age

December 23, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT

CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: “Community” is a Rorschach word. How you define it says something about how you see your world.

We can think of community as a place, a neighborhood like this one, Adams Morgan in Washington, D.C., or a section of Washington like Georgetown, or a metro region, like the greater Washington area, which spills over into Virginia and Maryland.

Sometimes we define it by a shared culture or a voting bloc, the black community, the gay community, the Hispanic community, and so on. As the Internet melts away old boundaries of tribes and places like icebergs in the tropical sun, we chat increasingly in online communities, input your data locally and commune globally, united for better or worse by our interests, language, and values.

You can’t always define community, but you know it when you don’t see it. You don’t see it, for example, in chaotic scenes like this, this year’s Black Friday shopping rush at a Long Island Wal-Mart, a nightmare before Christmas that left one man dead and several other people trampled underfoot.

Peace on Earth and goodwill toward men fell to a more primitive sentiment: Every man for himself.

Community is quite the opposite. An expression of caring about something larger than yourself that also cares back. That was how an old neighbor of mine, the author, radio host, and oral historian Studs Terkel used to look at it.

When NPR asked him to write an essay for their “This I Believe” series, his response was clear and direct.

LOUIS “STUDS” TERKEL, Broadcast and Author: And I put it in three words: community in action.

Coming together in hardship

CLARENCE PAGE: He recalled a defining moment in the Great Depression. He saw a family evicted from their home, an individual cry of despair, he called it, multiplied by millions. Then he recalled the family's neighbors, also struggling, but nevertheless coming together to help the family put their lives back together, move back into their home, and help keep their community together.

LOUIS "STUDS" TERKEL: And it's the community in action that accomplishes more than the individual does, no matter how strong he may be.

CLARENCE PAGE: Louis "Studs" Terkel used to say that he never met a petition that he wouldn't sign. He died at age 96. Four days later, America elected a former community organizer to be president. Studs undoubtedly would have smiled.

America always has been a nation of community organizers. Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at our voluntary associations when he wrote about our young democracy, "Americans believe that ordinary people should run things."

Power and accountability came from the spontaneous social groupings that British philosopher Edmund Burke called "little platoons."

You can still find them today in the shadows of our giant glass, concrete, and steel cities, in the block clubs, the community action groups, and volunteer service organizations. You see them in the volunteer firefighters, food banks, and emergency medical workers of our small towns.

Why do some societies prosper while others fall apart? Leadership at the top matters, but so do leaders at the bottom who rise up from what one progressive era senator called the grassroots and the hard soil of public need.

I'm Clarence Page.