Redefining community in virtual and political reality

April 27, 2009
Last week, I made a presentation about social media to several hundred people at a Carmel Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

We talked about Facebook and Twitter, YouTube and Flickr, LinkedIn, blogging and more.

I didn't answer the "how-to" question. I answered the "whether-to" question. With some important cautions, my answer was "yes."

A self-proclaimed "fogey on Facebook," I explained that one effect of social media is to redefine community. In this new online world, time and geography are rendered obsolete.

To demonstrate, I showed pictures of two Facebook friends.

The first was a fellow who lived across the street from me in Fort Wayne when we were both in elementary school.

The second was a businesswoman from New York City who "friended" me a few weeks ago. We're now negotiating a shared social-networking project for a client of hers.

On any given day, my Facebook page features conversations and commentary among friends in California and Connecticut, Hawaii and Michigan, Madison and Missoula.

There are conversations involving friends from 30 years ago in Fort Wayne, friends from 20 years ago in Hartford, friends I met last week at that Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Carmel.

Via social networks, I've conversed with recent college graduates, my nieces and nephews, my congressman, my state representative, a state senator, a medical school leader, clients, potential clients, co-workers, reporters, high school classmates, university deans, faculty members and more.

In short, my community is no longer bound by the here and now. At the touch of a button, my community spans my lifetime without regard for where in the world my friends happen to be.

But as I drove through Carmel on my way home (in downtown Indianapolis) that afternoon, I got to thinking how easy it's been to redefine community in the virtual universe, and how difficult it is to redefine community in the political universe.

At that Chamber lunch, I sat next to Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard. The mayor speaks eloquently about the concept of an "edge city." Under his leadership and vision, Carmel, more than any adjacent-to-Indianapolis city, has evolved as such a place.

Some see suburban development as competition worthy of dread or disgust. I see it as evolution worthy of celebration. Healthy communities offer different kinds of places and choices for all who live there. In the long run, we're made better by the variety.

What's more, the notion that we must choose one over the other is nonsensical. My friends from Carmel, Fishers, Greenwood, Avon, Zionsville, Shelbyville, Noblesville and elsewhere visit my downtown community to work and play.

Along with my family and friends, I visit their communities to work and play.

As edge communities develop amenities, such as Carmel's new Performing Arts Center, I'll go there for performances. But that's not going to stop me from visiting the Indiana Repertory Theatre, Clowes Hall, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and all the other attractions in Indianapolis.

As I told my Chamber audience, new choices don't have to be "instead of;" they're more likely "in addition to." And for that, our lives and communities are richer.

The problem is how to fund and manage that choice and variety in a redefined community.

We are not, in this age of rapid transit and virtual connections, a core city surrounded by disparate edge cities, towns, townships and counties. We are an interconnected region that, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, either hangs together or most assuredly hangs separately.

Yet our outdated, outmoded political systems and funding mechanisms smack of segmentation and separateness. They breed competition and confrontation rather than inspiring cooperation and collaboration.

As a result, the people of our region—and we are a region—pay disproportionately for the inherent benefits and obligations of living together in this place and time.

Because of that inequity, we find our cities and towns saying to the General Assembly, "But this problem or opportunity is bigger than us; please help." And we hear the state replying, "But your problem or opportunity is not statewide; sorry, you're on your own."

Lacking regional governance, it's round and round we go.

If we were to truly and effectively redefine our community, if we could start from scratch and stage a revolution a la the inventors of social networking, we'd never settle for such a hodgepodge of jurisdictions. We'd never agree to such an unequal distribution of benefits and obligations.

In our democratic republic, we despise monopoly and crave market-driven solutions. Yet the main barrier to government reform is a nearly immovable government monopoly. Even with "tea parties" and tax revolts, the market of public opinion hasn't been able to force government reform.

Perhaps outside-in leadership would help. Perhaps, recognizing that they can't be edge cities on the edge of nothing, the people of Carmel and other surrounding communities can lead the way toward a smart, effective, redefined regional community.

Discuss that edgy notion on my Facebook page.


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
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