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A place to speak your virtual mind, by Lisa Napoli
January 21, 2002

NEW YORK, Jan. 21 — Call me a connection junkie. I'm one of those people you meet on the street, in the elevator, in the lobby, who would ask your opinion or how you are and actually want an answer. Often, I look out the window of the apartment building where I live and work and wish there was a town square nearby, a place where I could go and hang out and listen, to dissect the events of the day. Since there isn't one, and since I am not much for the local bar, and since I don't belong to a church, I create that community by inviting people to my home for coffee or a meal. Sometimes the guests are not people I know well at all. The idea is to share ideas. To connect.

Since Sept 11, my need to talk and to share has been acute, not just for me, but for so many. Always, I lament: If only we had that giant town square, where each night after dinner everyone could gather. Instead of reverting to the TV set, revert to each other to check in and express ourselves, try to make sense of it all.

The truth is, we do have a town square: We have the Web. In various corners of cyberspace there are places where people of like minds connect on all manner of topics, every day, 24/7.

A Real Gathering Place
For several weeks now people have been gathering to discuss world events at a place called Web Lab, a nonprofit group that has worked with MSNBC.com to create a virtual town square. In this space, this disparate lot has been commiserating with one another about the world events. Arabs and the media. Defining terrorism. Feeling safe. Religion and war. Oil, Israel and Palestine. Enron. The economy. The topics and opinions run the gamut, just as topics and opinions in any good conversations do.

As varied as the subject matter is the backgrounds of the congregants. It may even be a more diverse kind of gathering than you would find if you had a town square near where you live, or maybe it reflects your community: A Greek Orthodox nun. A museum curator. A schoolbus driver. A retired chemical engineer. A medicine man. Someone who describes himself "just this old guy with an unfulfilling job and unfilled dreams, hopes or delusions."

Easy To Talk
This town square or village green is open day and night, for all who care to participate. You can join, too. Of course, it is imperfect. Of course, it is no substitute for connecting face to face. But for many, talking online, dissecting the events of the day and projecting into the future in this medium is the preferred way to have discussions of this sort. Virtual conversation makes it easier, in a sense, to be more frank — you don't have to look someone in the eye, and you can deliberate longer before you "speak." Just think: instead of pounding your fist on the bar, you're punctuating in pixels.

The end result is that the noise level is different in a virtual gathering than it is in a bar.

"I am so impressed with the depth of insight, intelligence, and compassion from that amazing group of people," writes one participant, named Ray. "Reading their posts is like reading a great novel/history book/spirituality book all combined into one. What an honor to have a glimpse into the lives of so many incredible people."

Like me, like many, participants in this virtual dialogue are happy to expand upon, or escape from, what they read and hear in the traditional news media.

"I've been enlightened, interested, and have looked forward to seeing what had been added every day — quite a change from the dread with which I pick up the newspaper or turn on CNN," writes HHBishop. "Can't say the folks in this group don't care about the common good!"

And for all the things you can say about discussion virtual and real, that's perhaps the most important. In times like these, it's good to have a reminder that beyond our own little worlds and the people in them, total strangers care, too — care enough to reach out and hear what other total strangers have to say.

Join the Conversation
My friend Mary writes to me every week or so if she hasn't heard from me and says, "Just taking your emotional pulse." It's her way of saying that she loves me and wants to know what's going on. Checking in to an online conversation in this virtual town square — and even better, participating in it yourself — gives you a sense of the complex, layered emotional pulse of our fellow citizens. It gives you a sense that other people are struggling with the same problems as you are, even if that struggle is all you share.

I don't know about you, but these days I find that kind of connection more important than ever.

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