Finding Each Other: Digital Natives and Communities of Interest

On Sunday, the New York Times ran an article on transgendered men at women’s colleges in the US. The entire article was sensitive, fascinating, and raised some provocative questions. It’s been hovering on the most-emailed list at the Times for over 24 hours now, so I have to imagine that others found it to be as engaging as I did. The most interesting part, though, at least in relation to the work we do here at Digital Natives, was the comment a college freshman named Rey made about the role of the internet in forging supportive communities for transgendered individuals:

For most of high school, Rey spent hours online reading about transgendered people and their lives. “The Internet is the best thing for trans people,” he said. “Living in the suburbs, online groups were an access point.”

The article mentions that Rey entered this sphere through a familiar portal: he typed the word “transgender” into Google.

Rey’s deeply personal story uncovers one corner of the larger schematic: the internet is where it’s all happening. For teens whose parents, schoolmates, relatives, or close friends don’t have the answers, there are countless supportive communities online. The trick, as usual, is finding the one that fits—and being able to identify the ones that don’t. This article is interesting to me in particular because Rey found this support on the internet years ago; memories of those online groups now constitute the foundations of his transgendered experience. Though he is now in college, the internet came into play at exactly the moment in his adolescence when he had questions that needed answering…and Google was the first place he turned.

Rey’s experience points to a larger trend toward online communities of interest as formative spaces. One of the most powerful capabilities of the network that constitutes the internet is the way it enables people to find others like them, to gain knowledge and support, and to feel not only less alone, but more connected. Whether a group of transgendered teens, railroad fans, soda pop experts, or victims of specific crimes, these communities of interest offer more than just “interest”; they offer access to experience.

How have communities of interest, online or off, shaped the lives of people close to you? How have they shaped your own life? What are their dangers and their rewards? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.