Chendamangalam to my left and Java to my right!

Before I explain more about my weird title, I would like to walk you through the concept called Community. In the mid 1900’s the term Community referred to social interaction within a geographic area and having goals or norms in common. But more recently, to be precise post the onset of the digital era, the term community has been more frequently applied to categories of people who engage in a particular purpose, task or function together, or who have some form of identity in common, and not necessarily associate with the same locality. The shared function may be related to work, education, sport, entertainment, etc. The shared identity might be that of ethnic origin, occupation, disability, age, gender, religion or some other characteristic.

Location based Communities

My parents grew up in a village in Kerala, India called Chendamangalam, a typical conventional community, defined by physical boundaries that separate it from other such communities. Chendamangalam was a place which until recently didn’t have a hospital, a petrol pump, for that matter not even a medical shop. But the people there were bound by the feeling of oneness that was bound by the line that demarcates Chendamangalam from the neighboring towns and villages. People there were not worried as much about what was being aired on Times Now, NDTV or any other News Channel as what was being discussed in their local “chayakada” (teashop). Chayakada was their parliament, where everything was discussed and debated — US elections to their local panchayat elections, Mardi Gras to their local temple festival, Harvard to their local school, Bill Gates to their local vegetable vendor, there was nothing that was left untouched. The chayakada was the official voice of the residents there. Losses were jointly mourned and victories were jointly celebrated. They were all born into one community and they ensured that they lived as one.

Interest or Function based Communities

But, things have changed drastically in the digital era. Today for majority of the people, it is not the locality where they happen to reside that provides their primary experience of community life. If you ask my 14-year-old nephew who lives in Botswana, Africa, he is a part of online communities which connects him to members from USA, China, and even from Papua New Guinea. These are what we call interest or function based communities, and are not confined by geographical constraints unlike maybe 15 years back.

These are communities with which its members identify and ones which provide them with a particular sense of identity. Today communication and sense of belonging transcend physical barriers. For example, connoisseurs of Java technology would identify with an international body sharing a similar field of expertise or interest. Such a body would have more importance for them in terms of communication than people who live locally. And rightly so, it would not make any sense for a non-Java enthusiast to be a part of such a community. They neither produce nor consume anything worthwhile, which defeats the sole purpose of having such a community.

What do we need?

Renowned author Jim Ife argues that there should be renewed emphasis on local communities even in this digital era. Ife argues that interest based communities fail to integrate populations, instead they encourage people with similar backgrounds to communicate with each other, ignoring the person with a different ethnic background or the one with a disability living nearby. Today’s interest-based communities tend to ignore the ground reality that communities are built by people and for the sustenance of communities one member needs to relate to the other, and not one chat window relating to the other.

All said and done unlike the Chendamangalams of yesterday we cannot expect the same kind of bonding and understanding in bigger metros like New York, Mumbai or Bangalore. Also interest and function based communities are necessary for honing one’s skills and possibly creating disruptive solutions to man’s problems, which would take our race to the next level. So, what we need is a combination of both these, where people identify with other people, both by faces and also by interests.

An obvious question would be how do we amalgamate these two completely different types of communities and come up with a single solution. The answer is — we cannot, rather we should not. On the contrary we should create breeding grounds which would help individuals manage both types of communities optimally in their lives. This is where I believe College Communities can play a big role. When I walked into Model Engineering College in 1996 I was plugging myself into a community which, for all practical purposes, was a local community. But, where colleges differ from normal local communities is that these are formed by people with different interests focused on the novel concept of learning, and bound by the boundaries of a physical enclosure. Until your college days you are within a forced-upon comfort zone. Family always tend to be over-protective (which is not a bad thing in today’s scenario) and schools are communities, but not ones which let you openly express yourself, for multifarious reasons.

College is the first community where you start thinking independent. You begin to interact and engage with other individuals who are outside of your in-bred comfort zone. The basic sense of community is sown in you during your college days. Slowly you begin to identify other individuals with whom you, as an individual, would like to engage more. You are made aware of the strength of creating, or being part of, communities based on your interest and functional needs. And the best part is, since all this happens within fixed boundaries, every day that goes by, you to tend to understand other members of your community better. And the day you walk out of your college after graduation, you have a better understanding of what communities are, what their strengths are, and how best can they help you nurture your real interests in life. This would give you the perfect launch pad to identify and plug into the right interest-based communities in the world outside and pursue your real passion with all zeal and vigor.

You will always have the Chendamangalams to your left and the Java communities to your right. But for the betterment of human race let’s focus on building strong college communities, beginning now.