Crowdfunding, Selfies, and Mommy Blogs: Finding Community in the Internet Age

It’s common to worry that the internet is isolating us. But could it also be helping to create new forms of community?

At 5:50 a.m. on Tuesday, April 1, a young man named Nathan Trapuzzano was shot and killed while out for a morning walk. Nathan was only twenty-four years old. Married just last May, he leaves behind his wife, Jennifer, who is eight months pregnant with a daughter, Cecilia.

I don’t know the Trapuzzano family. Yet, last Tuesday morning, as I tested my own twenty-four-year-old husband’s patience by checking Facebook on my phone instead of getting ready for work, I saw this urgent prayer request, posted by Jennifer at 8:03 a.m.: “Prayers! My husband was mugged this morning and is in critical condition. I’m eight months pregnant with our first.” Jennifer and I are both members of a small Catholic Facebook group, and she posted her prayer request on the group’s wall. By 10:28 a.m., when Jennifer told us, “He didn’t make it,” fifty people had commented, offering their prayers and support. Dozens upon dozens of other comments—offering masses, rosaries, and spiritual bouquets—followed.

But the support didn’t stop with prayer. Although they did not know the Trapuzzanos in person, several women in the Catholic group decided to create a new Facebook group, “Supporting Jennifer and Cecilia Trapuzzano,” where information was quickly circulated about a GoFundMe site set up to offset Nathan’s funeral costs and to help support Jennifer and Cecilia. Less than 48 hours after Nathan was attacked, over $100,000 had  been raised, and the donations haven’t stopped since.

It’s common to worry that technology has isolated us from each other, making us alienated and self-centered. But I think that the Trapuzzanos’ story illustrates a more hopeful trend, demonstrating some of the ways that the internet enables individuals to support each other in very real ways.

Take another recent, tragic example. On March 18, Sean and Becca Lewis lost two of their three young daughters, Olivia (age six) and Emma (age three), in a car accident. Over $150,000 of donations poured in to help with medical expenses and to allow the family time to grieve. Friends have also set up a MealTrain site organizing meal deliveries and used SignUp Genius to organize a full year of daily prayers for the family. On April 3, Sean and Becca made a large donation to the Trapuzzano family’s GoFundMe page, quietly passing on love and support to another grieving family even as they mourn the loss of their own beautiful daughters.

I would never publicly highlight these personal losses in a forum like Public Discourse if they had not already been made public, and to good effect. Indeed, these examples dramatically illustrate the ways that people can come together using social media to respond to unspeakable sorrow and loss.

Nothing can replace the physical presence of family and friends in times of grief and sorrow. Praying together at the funeral, silently sitting together and wiping away tears, laughing and sharing memories of happier days, talking through the pain for hours on end . . . these are all ways that we help each other bear what can seem unbearable. Online donations and expressions of sympathy from strangers cannot take the place of these acts of mercy. Still, such a generous outpouring of support can be yet another way to remind bereaved families like the Lewises and the Trapuzzanos that they are not alone in their sorrow.

Does Technology Foster Isolation?

These examples of generosity and kindness are beautiful, but is this type of internet-enabled community typical? Scores of cultural commentators have written about the ways that technology can alienate us. As Stephen Marche observed in The Atlantic,

In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are. We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.

Self-referential commentary on the question abounds, with viral videos like “I Forgot My Phone” documenting the way that smartphones prevent us from actually encountering those with whom we interact. Or consider the current craze over The Chainsmokers’ #SELFIE video, which simultaneously lampoons and glorifies internet-fueled narcissism (and was, incidentally, pushed to go viral not by organic shares, but by a carefully crafted social media blitz).

In some ways, this global internet community and the drive it has spawned to meticulously craft a perfectly cultivated internet persona (“Can you guys help me pick a filter?” asks the girl from #SELFIE, “I wanna look tan!”) are entirely new things. This level of connectivity is uncharted territory, and it undeniably has psychological and social consequences.

In other ways, though, the elevation of the individual and the global brought on by social media reminds me of the observations of Robert Nisbet (who himself was heavily indebted to Alexis de Tocqueville) in The Quest for Community, originally published in 1953. Nisbet worried that the rise of the modern state, with its ever-expanding reach and tendency toward totalitarianism, had eroded intermediary institutions, weakening traditional sources of community such as the family, the parish, and the fraternal organization that used to establish—and, to a certain extent, limit—one’s identity. As individuals became isolated within their own local surroundings, they became receptive to the encroachments of big, centralized government.

Ross Douthat writes in his introduction to a recent edition of Nisbet’s book,

from the Protestant Reformation onward, individualism and centralization would advance together, while intermediate powers and communities either fell away or were dissolved. . . . In place of a web of overlapping communities and competing authorities, the liberal West set out to build a society of self-sufficient, liberated individuals, overseen by a unitary, rational, and technocratic government. . . .

But all that constraining tissue served a purpose. Man is a social being, and his desire for community will not be denied. The liberated individual is just as likely to become the alienated individual, the paranoid individual, the lonely and desperately-seeking-community individual. And if he can’t find that community on a human scale, then he’ll look for it on an inhuman scale—in the total community of the totalizing state.

Nisbet was concerned about the political effects of modern Americans’ lack of community, since he believed that it helped to open the door for totalitarian regimes and big-government programs that step in to fill the roles traditionally carried out by family and local community organizations. This concern has proved to be a valid one (see “Life of Julia”). If it is true that the quality of our lives and the justice of our political systems is hurt by a lack of community, what concrete steps should we take to rebuild our communities?

New Forms of Community

Twenty years after writing The Quest for Community, Nisbet clarified that he never meant to be nostalgic or to call for a return to medieval society. On the contrary, he wrote, “It is not the revival of old communities that the book in a sense pleads for; it is the establishment of new forms: forms which are relevant to contemporary life and thought.” If my generation wants to foster the growth of intermediate institutions, maybe the only option isn’t to join the Kiwanis or the Rotary or the Lions’ Club. Without abandoning our parishes and the charitable organizations in our towns and cities, maybe there are ways that we can use new media to our advantage.

I believe that social media have the capacity to help establish new forms of community that fulfill our innate desire to be part of a group that is larger than ourselves, but small enough for us to be known, accepted, and loved.

Of course, human nature hasn’t changed since the advent of the internet. We’re still incarnate, physical creatures, and we still need in-person, real-life friendships. And we’re still spiritual beings, in need of communities of believers who share our faith (whatever form that faith may take: case in point, the recent rise of atheist churches). So virtual communities will never—and should never—replace local ones, just as online support will never replace physical presence for those who lose their loved ones.

Efforts to buy locally-sourced goods and services, to build more walkable cities and towns, and to strengthen community and church organizations are all important and worthy steps in the right direction. But, increasingly, certain corners of the internet are managing to form thriving and innovative forms of community as well. As a case study, let’s take a look at one such corner: Catholic mommy blogs.

Religious blogs documenting family life hold a strong appeal for a heterogeneous group of readers. At Salon, for example, a self-proclaimed “young, feminist atheist who can’t bake a cupcake” finds herself marveling at her addiction to reading about “the shiny happy lives” of Mormon stay-at-home moms on their blogs. These blogs hold an unmistakable allure:  “It is possible to be happy, they seem to whisper. We love our homes. We love our husbands.”

While Catholic women’s blogs also express their love for their husbands and families, they are often a bit more open about the not-so-shiny parts of the domestic life than Mormon blogs.

Take Calah Alexander, who blogs at Barefoot and Pregnant. Now a stay-at-home mom married to an English professor at a Catholic college, Calah has bravely written about her painful past. As a junior in college, she found herself addicted to meth and pregnant out of wedlock. She writes with honesty and biting wit about the struggles of living out her newfound Catholic faith in posts like “The Super Suckage of NFP.” She also analyzes pop culture through a literary and spiritual lens. In “Suffering Comes Like A Walker,” for example, Calah starts with the AMC zombie show “The Walking Dead” and ends up quoting Pope Benedict XVI’s declaration that love is inextricably linked with suffering and self-renunciation.

Blogs like these document the place where the rubber meets the road. They take general political and religious statements about the importance of the family and they make them real, personal, and incarnate. It’s one thing for Humanae Vitae to explain why contraception is wrong; it’s another thing to read the words of a woman who’s struggling to keep the faith through her fourth or fifth surprise pregnancy. And because blogs express their authors’ personalities so strongly, they provide a powerful opportunity to encounter others. As a result, a supportive virtual community has grown.

Jennifer Fulwiler and Hallie Lord, two prominent Catholic bloggers, have decided to help that community transition offline. A computer programmer and atheist-to-Catholic convert, Jennifer has written extensively about the unnatural isolation of suburbia, and the ways that modern mothers can work to rebuild an intentional community network and family support system. These are women who know the value of intermediate institutions. They’ve launched a brand-new conference called The Edel Gathering, which will bring together several hundred women, mostly Catholic moms who write or read blogs, for a weekend of socialization and rejuvenation.

Taking the Long View

Efforts like the Edel Gathering and outpourings of support for grieving families give powerful witness to the positive possibilities of the internet. On one level, they are important because of their immediate, short-term effects: stay-at-home moms get social, intellectual, and spiritual stimulation from friends who share their beliefs, and grieving families receive support through prayer, service, and financial contributions. But the long-term effects are just as important. By using the internet to create a community in which families become more and more connected to each other and by making public both the beauty and the struggles of married love and childrearing, these people are slowly and quietly building up the marriage culture.

In a culture with such a tragically high divorce rate, a lifelong marriage and a happy family life can feel utterly foreign, if not impossibly unattainable. But, as Ryan Anderson and Sherif Girgis have said, it is essential to take the long view. It may happen slowly, but giving hopeful witness to the possibility of such a life can transform the way that men and women see their own lives and influence the choices they make for the better. These individual choices, in turn, gradually build up strong communities that value marriage and family.

The examples of loving, self-sacrificial men and women have the power to change hearts and minds—and the internet is giving them new ways to share their stories.

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