Membership

What tends to get lost in our world is membership, which is neither solitary nor anonymous.

This point from Alan Jacobs' How to Think is prescient for the web. I sometimes feel like I am both screaming into the void and a drop in the ocean. Jacobs uses a prescient passage from C.S. Lewis' “The Inner Ring” to explain membership further:

How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogenous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself [...] If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure.

Lewis' definition can also apply to other tight-knit groups. “Each [person] is accepted for his own distinctive contribution to the group: if it were less distinctive,” Jacobs writes, “it would be less valuable.” Membership respects your individuality while not leaving you completely isolated. Membership respects you as a unique contribution to the group rather than as another body in the crowd. Between solitude and anonymity stands membership.

And I agree with Jacobs – membership tends to get lost in our world, especially on the web. Am I truly a member of a Facebook group? Am I truly a member of a forum? Sometimes you get a semblance of membership but leave with a counterfeit experience. Other times you get membership where you least expect it. Jacobs, for instance, mentions how he found membership in a motley of “like-hearted” folks on Twitter:

I had chosen to interact with people (on Twitter) who had very little in common except that I knew – from experience – that they wouldn't write me out of their own personal Books of Life if I said something they strongly disagreed with. That is, I am confident that I am a member (in the organic sense) of a curious little online body, and that has been a real encouragement to me. Sometimes I even try out writing ideas on them – typically only a few are able to answer (they have lives), but when they do answer I know it'll emerge from genuine thought, not merely emotional or visceral reaction. These people, again, are not necessarily like-minded, but they are temperamentally disposed to openness and have habits of listening – and in that sense are wonderfully like-hearted.

This example brings home the point that while technology can facilitate it, membership is social at its core. How can membership be encouraged? How can one build membership within a group? It doesn't matter if you're on Twitter or on an obscure forum. Such questions require a personal touch, a commitment to striving for true membership as opposed to false belonging. It also requires a dash of prudence – does one have to strive for membership all the time, with everything and with everyone? When is it and not appropriate?

These questions cannot be solved by a bug fix or a new web framework. But that's the point. I am reminded of a sub-header in Darius Kazemi's Run Your Own Social that sums this up:

Social solutions to social problems