Hugh Mackay misses an important point on Communities …Social Media.

I am a big fan of Hugh Mackay. I started following him in the early eighties when he used to do a segment on the ABC with Caroline Jones. I even bought their CD on communication which is still one of the best I have ever come across. I have always found his insights on consumers and society in general compelling and pretty accurate. I was surprised by his article on communities in SMH this weekend as it failed to recognise the role of Social Media in the resurgence of communities in today’s world.


Why is it that many of see the internet and technology generally as creating a culture of zombies, glued to our computers and screens, ignoring our loved ones and rarely speaking? While this may true of some, perhaps even many, it is also true that the digital revolution has opened up communication between friends family and even strangers where little or none existed previously. Prof. Michael Wesch, Digital Ethnography Program, Kansas State University made the point in his presentation to the Library of Congress in 2008, that one of the profound outcomes of “YouTube” and the internet was the growth in communities through connecting around common interests and this often resulted in face to face connection over time.


He is not alone in observing this phenomenon. Despite all the hype around Twitter, one of the fascinating aspects of this Social Media toll is the bringing together of communities and even total strangers through a common interest or event. Tweetups in all their various forms often attract hundreds of attendees just to have a drink or meet face to face. However vague their common connection, they still make up a community and its healthy. My own experience via @coffeemornings in Sydney has been a great one. I now have friends and connections to people I would never have normally met.


During the recent bushfire crisis in Victoria, BigPond used social media to solicit help from strangers in locating old mobile phone chargers for those that were left with nothing more than their mobile phone. The community responded and they had thousands with a day or two. The only difference that I can see between this and my local face to face community, is that it occurs with instant and continual access rather than opportunistic access via the kids or Saturday shopping. Surely this is healthy and an encouraging sign that communities are alive and well but communicating differently. Didn’t this occur when the telephone became mainstream in the 1960’s?


I share Hugh’s concerns about the importance of communities but I guess I am much more optimistic. I see a future where we are actually more connected than we are today or have ever been in our past. Apart from this being an obvious statement, my view is that more and more people all over the world will connect in a real and personal way around not only family and neighbourhoods but around issues, hobbies, sports, technology, charities and the like. They will discover people all over the world that also want a connection with other citizens and who knows, they may even meet face to face one day.



  1. lpapworth said

    I agree – online communities are often offline communities in a more convenient way. 🙂

  2. As Michael Wesch also explains, social media crushes hierarchies and leaps across boundaries. It allows us to form bonds online that would not have been possible in real life.

    But there is a wider shift. We are increasingly living our lives online. After all, how many people actually know their neighbours? How many participate in local activities? These same people can point to hundreds of “friends” on Facebook or Twitter.

    The very nature of community has transformed, and will continue to change. And that is as it should be.

  3. You’re totally right, Doug. Social networking would be nothing more than a convenience to me if there wasn’t a very real, very human aspect to it – the opportunity to meet people face to face.

    Some of my best friends and most enduring business relationships began online. I value them all the more because I understand how tenuous that link can be.

  4. Des Walsh said

    Yes, much as I respect a lot of Hugh’s insights in the past, he clearly hasn’t got it on this one. A couple of weeks ago I met up with long lost friends visiting Sydney from the UK – they found me via Facebook: that was gold for me. I have gone to conferences in other countries and have had multiple face to face confirmations of the strength and depth of online friendships. I have done business, with real money, with people I have never met and it’s all been done on a virtual handshake, based on trust. By contrast, I have done business with some people in my own country, face to face, whose dishonesty has belied their face to face declarations of integrity. Hugh should get in more – i.e. online.

  5. tmsau said

    Dear Doug

    Thanks for getting in touch and for sending through your blog. I appreciate your kind remarks about my work.

    The piece in the Herald was a highly edited-down version of a longer essay I wrote for the latest Griffith Review. It would be good if you could read the entire piece!

    The essay was specifically about “real communities” – indeed, that is the title of the essay – but that wasn’t made clear from the extract. I’m all in favour of (and well acquainted with) “virtual communities” as well, but I think it’s important to keep the distinction clear in our heads.

    You can see more of my (highly sympathetic) views on virtual communities in Advance Australia…Where? (second edition out last year) and Media Mania: Why our fear of modern media is misplaced (UNSW, 2002).

    As usual with such complex topics, a brief extract from a larger essay, focussing on just one aspect of the whole, can be a bit misleading.

    Nevertheless, I’d still want to emphasise the point that “real” and “virtual” are both very important, very therapeutic, but quite different. Everything we know about the multiple messages exchanged in a face-to-face encounter argues against treating “real” and “virtual” as equivalents. Membership of one can certainly lead to membership of the other – in both directions – but to conflate them would be to deny the cultural significance of “human presence”.

    Best wishes

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