At a holiday dinner a few years back, my father-in-law innocently repeated a remark made by what he referred to as “a gay Republican friend.” Forks laden with food halted in mid-air. Open mouths went unfed. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop. It wasn’t the combination of “gay” and “Republican” in the same sentence that stunned us. It was the word “friend.” As far as we knew, he had no friends. He spent most days tapping out rebuttals to comments made by fellow FReepers on the Mac in his basement. Mr. Spoked used to ask him why he didn’t surf the ‘net for porn like everyone else. Clearly, we didn’t understand–until his casual remark–that my father-in-law had found fellowship online in a way real life couldn’t deliver. Yet sociologists fret about how the Internet has killed community. Not in our experience.
Last night we joined a sellout crowd at the Topeka Community Cycle Project for the Dinner & Bikes Tour sponsored by cycling activists Elly Blue, Joe Biel, and Joshua Ploeg. Elly talked about bicycling economy, Joe showed several film shorts about Portland, Oregon’s road to becoming a Bike Friendly city, and Joshua served us a tasty vegan dinner. The place was packed. I wondered how such an event could have happened in the old days. A quiet little venture like TCCP wouldn’t have been noticed outside Topeka for years, if ever. Maybe word-of-mouth would have traveled to Portland eventually, but it would have taken an awfully long time. Now any of us can create a website/blog/Facebook page and gain attention in a fairly short period of time. It’s community built at the speed of light. You could argue that it’s not as deep or lasting as in the old days, but it’s still community.
Looking around the room last night I saw a number of familiar faces, but also many I didn’t know. We strangers were bound together by cycling, either because we bicycled ourselves or because we knew and loved someone who does. The three people in charge of the evening had never met us, but new bonds had forged before the night ended. Afterwards, Mr. Spoked and I bicycled on the streets of Topeka, our headlamps lighting the way. We checked on our new acquaintances online when we got home. Community: it’s not the same as it ever was, but it’s alive in so many ways.