This week the Mental Health Foundation reported that more people of all ages are feeling lonely. Partly this is attributed to a loss of old-style community in modern society. The word ‘community’, in the dictionary sense, means things like feeling part of your locality or part of a group with shared interests. Work pressures, changing family structures and geographical mobility are some of the reasons cited for this loss. However, communities do still exist but not in a way that we might readily recognise. For example:
- Work – Some people go to work because of the social network it gives them. Many organisations encourage the building of relationships through social events and charity activities. Sharing successes and frustrations with work colleagues can give a sense of community. I used to joke to my boss that we spent more time together (in a shared office) than we did with our spouses.
- Online – Facebook, Linked In, You Tube, etc. are all ways of interacting with others in virtual communities. Does the ease of online interaction mean that we’re less interested in making the effort to build strong face-to-face relationships? After all, it seems easier to share your innermost thoughts to the anonymous ether than it does to knock on your neighbour’s door and risk a ‘What do you want?’ The report suggests that technology is both a help and a hinderance.
- Brands – Customer magazines, loyalty cards, special events and online forums can all create a sense of community around a brand. I’ve been particularly interested in the way several mainstream magazines have developed communities of readers online.
- Sporting events – The rise of mass participation events, particularly around charity fundraising, also seems to reflect a need for belonging. There’s a kind of ‘We’re all in this together’ feeling.
- TV – As one of many watching a programme that will be talked about for days on end (e.g. soap operas, talent shows, popular quizzes) there is the potential sense of community.
When we look closer at such communities perhaps one fundamental element is missing. The quality of the relationships. Deep and meaningful connections are arguably replaced by wide-ranging and superficial ones. Maybe we’re also relying on others to create those communities rather than taking responsibility for ourselves whilst supporting those less able to access such communities on their own. Working less hours or living close to your family doesn’t mean you’ll be less lonely. This is about understanding and finding what we need to feel part of something. And that might be different for each of us.
What do you think? Is the nature of ‘community’ changing?