VIR­TUAL WORLDS, REAL CON­NEC­TIONS

From doll col­lec­tors to pi­geon rac­ers, theWeb is hatch­ing mil­lions of niche so­cial net­works. As Shari Cau­dron re­ports, some­times your best friends are the ones you meet on­line

National Post (Latest Edition) - - ISSUES - SHARI CAU­DRON

There’s a lot of talk th­ese days about the sad, so­cially iso­lated state of North Amer­i­cans. We’re a lonely lot, stud­ies claim. Our com­mu­ni­ties are dy­ing. Re­la­tion­ship are on the brink. Sure, we’ve got plenty of con­nec­tions on the In­ter­net. But th­ese aren’t real re­la­tion­ships, at least not ac­cord­ing to the re­searchers. Real re­la­tion­ships in­volve peo­ple who lis­ten and un­der­stand and sup­port and truly know one an­other. Real re­la­tion­ships are not a list of names in a MyS­pace ad­dress book.

But I don’t want to talk about lone­li­ness or so­cial iso­la­tion or the death of com­mu­nity. At least not yet. In­stead, I want to talk about Bar­bie col­lect­ing.

Bar­bie col­lect­ing is not the kind of thing you’d nor­mally read about in the op-ed pages. It’s not the kind of thing I nor­mally write about ei­ther. But bear with me. Three years ago, as part of re­search for a book about pas­sion­ate fa­nat­ics called Who Are You Peo­ple?, I ven­tured in a Bar­bie con­ven­tion. I didn’t go to the Bar­bie con­ven­tion be­cause I’m a Bar­bie kind of gal. In fact, I never even played with the doll as a child — I was more a build-afort-and-go-pre­tend-camp­ing kind of girl, as op­posed to a dress-your-doll-and-go-pre­tend shop­ping kind of girl.

I couldn’t pos­si­bly un­der­stand why peo­ple liked, no, loved Bar­bie. And that’s ex­actly why I went. See, I’ve never had a fa­nat­i­cal pas­sion that grabbed my at­ten­tion one day and didn’t let go. Be­cause of this, I was curious about peo­ple who did. Peo­ple like Bar­bie col­lec­tors.

I walked into the con­ven­tion and saw lots of cheer­ful women dressed in pink, with lit­tle Bar­bie dolls stick­ing out of their purses. I cruised the sales floor, where I learned the dif­fer­ence be­tween a Bub­ble Cut and a Twist ’n Turn. I at­tended work­shops on cos­tume de­sign and “limb re­con­struc­tion.” And I was — I ad­mit — se­cretly amused by the whole pink Bar­bie world.

And then I met Judy Steg­ner, a 43-year-old col­lec­tor and sin­gle mother from Fort Worth, Texas.

Judy and I sat down and she be­gan to tell me, her voice a deep Texas twang, how she met her Bar­bie friends.

“Well … it was Thanks­givin’ night in 1998 and my son Justin, who knew I loved Bar­bie, said to me, ‘Mom, there’s prob­a­bly a chat room where you can talk with other Bar­bie peo­ple.’ I looked at him like he was crazy. I mean, I didn’t know any­thin’ about the In­ter­net or chat rooms. Justin had to do ev­ery­thing. He found a site, logged me on, even gave me my screen name. I was on­line that night talk­ing to Bar­bie peo­ple un­til two in the morn­ing.” Judy laughed and rolled her eyes.

“But you know,” she said, “the Bar­bie col­lec­tors I’ve met on the In­ter­net are great peo­ple. I mean, I never could have made it with­out ’em.”

I put down the bot­tle of wa­ter I’d been hold­ing. “What do you mean,” I asked, “that you couldn’t have made it with­out them?”

Judy ex­haled. “Well,” she said, “maybe you heard about this. In Septem­ber, 1999, there was a shoot­ing at Wedg­wood Bap­tist Church in Fort Worth in which sev­eral kids were killed.”

I told her I vaguely re­called a story about a man who’d en­tered a church dur­ing a youth rally and ran­domly started shoot­ing.

“That’s the one,” she said. “He mur­dered seven peo­ple that day, in­clud­ing my son Justin.” Judy’s brown eyes grew pink with tears. “He was my only child.”

I looked at Judy, stunned by the in­for­ma­tion. The whir of noise and ac­tiv­ity around us came to abrupt stop. I smelled cof­fee from a nearby cof­fee cart. I no­ticed the glossy deep green leaves of a pot­ted plant. Through the win­dow be­hind Judy, I could see silent busi­ness peo­ple, their bod­ies bent for­ward, hur­ry­ing to work or meet­ings or other very im­por­tant places. How could this wo­man, how could any­body, go on with the rou­tine of life af­ter some­thing like this?

Judy con­tin­ued. “Well, my Texas friends grad­u­ally dropped out of sight af­ter my son was killed. I mean, I don’t blame ’em. They didn’t know what to say. But my Bar­bie friends … they called or wrote me ev­ery day. They sent me money. They sent care pack­ages. They helped raise thou­sands of dol­lars for a tu­ition as­sis­tance fund in Justin’s name. They also con­tacted Mat­tel. Can you be­lieve that? They con­tacted Mat­tel and the com­pany sent me a spe­cial col­lectible Bar­bie and a hand­writ­ten note the first Christ­mas af­ter Justin died. My Bar­bie friends even had a spe­cial An­gel doll made for me.” Judy paused to raise her glasses and wipe away tears. “I’m so blessed. This is the clos­est cir­cle of friends I’ve ever had.”

I couldn’t think of a sin­gle, com­fort­ing thing to say and felt ashamed be­cause of it.

Sud­denly, Judy jumped to her feet. “Let me show you some­thing,” she said.

I sensed Judy Steg­ner was used to putting other peo­ple at ease over her grief.

She grabbed her con­ven­tion tote bag, pulled out a quilt and un­folded it on the bench in front of us. The quilt, made to honor her son’s life, fea­tured 18 hand- sewn pan­els cre­ated by her In­ter­net Bar­bie friends in Cal­i­for­nia, Texas, Oklahoma, Michi­gan, Vir­ginia, New York and Aus­tralia. The back of the quilt was cov­ered in a white flan­nel swath of vin­tage fab­ric cov­ered with Bar­bie sil­hou­ettes.

Judy bent over and ran her hand along the soft ma­te­rial. “I can’t imag­ine how much that cost,” she said. “That’s prac­ti­cally an­tique.”

I left Judy Steg­ner and wan­dered through the Bar­bie con­ven­tion with a new, un­ex­pected per­spec­tive. The pas­sion for Bar­bie dolls may ap­pear triv­ial to out­siders, but it seemed that the com­mu­nity that had formed around those dolls was any­thing but.

For the next three years, I con­tin­ued my in­ves­ti­ga­tion into fa­nat­i­cal pas­sion. I spent time with ice fish­ers, Star Wars fans, pi­geon rac­ers, and die-hard fans of Josh Groban (who call them­selves the Groban­ites and en­cour­age each other to Josh on)! Through­out my trav­els, some ver­sion of the find-a-pas­sion, find-a-com­mu­nity story was told over and over again.

For ex­am­ple, I met a young autis­tic man who’d never had so­cial re­la­tion­ships of any sort un­til he found “fur­ries,” peo­ple who shared his in­ter­est in an­i­mal art.

I met adult Lego users who used to pur­sue their hobby alone in base­ment rooms, who now hap­pily meet in per­son with other adult Lego users — or, as they ex­plained, with peo­ple who “get them.”

I met fans of the decades-old Andy Grif­fith Show who — af­ter con­tact­ing each other on the In­ter­net — now meet reg­u­larly in per­son to watch re­runs in their own liv­ing rooms.

Make of that what you will. But I be­gan to sense to there’s more to th­ese quirky com­muni- ties than meets the eye. It’s a phe­nom­e­non I sum up with the equa­tion: Pas­sion + peo­ple = com­mu­nity.

Get peo­ple to­gether around a com­mon in­ter­est. Al­low them to talk about that in­ter­est with­out fear of ridicule, and some­thing tran­scen­dent oc­curs. The in­ter­est ex­pands. Re­la­tion­ships deepen. And soon you’ve got nur­tur- ing com­mu­ni­ties wherein autis­tic peo­ple are find­ing their voice and doll col­lec­tors are mak­ing quilts to help each other sur­vive hard times.

Which brings me back to all those stud­ies on so­cial iso­la­tion, like Robert Put­nam’s fa­mous 2000 book Bowl­ing alone. The time I spent trav­el­ing the coun­try with pas­sion­ate fa­nat­ics has led me to con­clude that com­mu­nity is not on the de­cline, nor are we more so­cially iso­lated than ever.

Sure, Ro­tary Clubs and bowl­ing leagues and home­own­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tions may be los­ing mem­bers, but it’s be­cause peo­ple are find­ing other, more per­son­ally re­ward­ing ways to find com­mu­nity, and that is by find­ing oth­ers who share their niche in­ter­ests. And there are sim­ply too many of th­ese po­ten­tial in­ter­ests — col­lect­ing ac­tion he­roes, pimp­ing old Fords, squeez­ing the ac­cor­dion, etc. — for any sta­tis­ti­cal sur­vey to track.

So why the per­sis­tently neg­a­tive re­ports about so­cial iso­la­tion? Be­cause I be­lieve we’re in tran­si­tion, a place where many older peo­ple (the same folks most likely to be at home and re­spond­ing to so­cial sur­veys) are still try­ing to get com­fort­able with on­line ex­pres­sion. The more com­fort­able they get us­ing the In­ter­net as a place to search for like­minded souls, the more com­fort­able they’ll be­come with the friend­ships they fos­ter on­line, and the more likely they’ll be to ven­ture out into mu­tu­ally sup­port­ive in-per­son com­mu­ni­ties.

Ever since Alex de Toc­queville jour­neyed across the con­ti­nent in the early 1800s, North Amer­ica has been known as a place for join­ers. And we’re still join­ing to­gether — but in newer, more color­ful and quirky ways.

So­cially iso­lated? Not hardly.

Shari Cau­dron is the au­thor of Who Are You Peo­ple? A Per­sonal Jour­ney into the­Heart of Fa­nat­i­cal Pas­sion in Amer­ica. (2006, Bar­ri­cade Books). Visit her web­site at www.whoarey­oupeo­ple.com.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY LEIF PENG

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