Place-shifted Community: Keep your friendly, neighbourhood whatever alive.

By Chris O’Brien of fullpickle.com @microbrien on Twitter.

Local communities are dying and it’s all your fault.

It’s my fault too. Common wisdom suggests it’s probably also Congress’ fault somehow. Most of all, it’s the Internet’s fault.
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The very idea of “local” anything is dying off. It’s long been discussed the ways technology shrinks the world, which is true. However, as much as technology brings the world together by making it easier to connect to far-away places (and the rarest of porn) it also shrinks each individual’s world by reducing the incentive to leave home (because of all the porn).
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Why dump quarters into a machine at an arcade, when you’ve got a Kinect and a Wii U in your living room and Steam on your computer—aside from the fact that no one uses cash anymore? Why invite friends over to play Call of Duty, when you can just get on PlayStation Network together and chat for a few hours before realizing you have work in the morning and you haven’t played a single match yet?

Few must leave their apartments or bedrooms to find these sorts of pleasures anymore, thus technology shrinks the world a little…like steroids to testicles.
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Movies are also readily available online and apparently in some places, they’re even offered legally. So are television shows, sporting events, live concerts, Presidential speeches—one may even participate in social activism such as Occupy Wall Street from the very comfortable confines of their home office, which may as a matter of fact be oxymoronic, but no less true for that fact.

Is it really worth it to go trudging through a weak local scene to find the one independently owned comic book store within fifty miles that is open more than two hours per week, if instead one might shop a hundred or thousands of stores via the Internet?

On the other hand, as local scenes fizzle, more and more individuals take their passions to the Internet; that is, after all, where the audience migrated to anyway (one last time…because of all the porn). It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that ultimately could spell doom for the small, the independent, and the local.
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So the entertainment at home is diverse, the outside world rarely offers anything we can’t access from our bedrooms, and the local venues for our fancies continuously decrease in quantity and quality, yet we persistently lament their passing.

Why?

Because there are still a few good comic book shops and many passionate hobbyists out there, fighting a losing battle as loyal friends look on, wondering how anyone could dream of missing out on stores with such character and such tightly knit communities.

It’s tempting to think that it may all be for the best. After all, nature abhors a vacuum, so something livelier and more suited to current sensibilities will spring up…right?

Well, maybe; but then again, maybe not.
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Ask anyone over forty what they used to do for fun at night and on weekends. Before the Internet, people apparently used to play games like poker and backgammon…or so middle-aged people sometimes say. The other common activity? Going out drinking and seeing a good band. Friends used to convene at nearby bars, because that was the most convenient way to connect to others and find entertainment.

Young geeks found entertainment and bonded in similar ways. It’s not that they didn’t also go out drinking and to see bands, but they also convened, only in their garages and basements and eventually, the basements of hobby shops and the back rooms of comic books stores.

While our behavior continues to change, watching one Budweiser commercial provides enough evidence that this kind of outing still pervades Western culture’s imagery regarding “real community” and “real fun.”

A similar image persists for us geeks. Even though the Internet dominates the means most find new content, for many, a small, intimate environment in a little known and probably hard to find shop is still the Platonic ideal of social engagement and entertainment.

Here, geek culture has something in common with music centered communities. Like local geek venues, local music scenes have been fizzling since a time before MTV virtually stopped showing music videos. However, the world of live and local music seems to be enjoying something geekdom sorely needs: an underground revival.

See, there’s something secret happening in poorly lit bars near my home town, in Providence, Rhode Island. No, it’s not another legal loophole that allows for morally debatable transactions between consenting adults. In fact, part of the joy is that it isn’t dirty or morally ambiguous at all. It’s just music.

Yet, it still feels like a secret—a secret the Music industry doesn’t want anyone to know about, that MTV long ago stopped whispering to high school students in the afternoon, that iTunes pretends to know, that Soundcloud desperately tries to keep to itself, and to which MySpace still clings as a last hope.

New, live, cheap music exists. It’s made by passionate, intelligent people and it is better than anything anyone is trying to sell.

This revival is luring people out of their homes and into musty bars once more. They are remembering, or maybe discovering for the first time, that face-to-face interaction and in-person communities offer unique and thrilling experiences.

Again, this is anything but a knock against online communities. Both online and offline interactions are useful and valuable. The point here is that there is a real need for both and “both” obviously includes “In Real Life.”
For geeks, perhaps the closest analogue to the groundswell in music culture is the advent of indie and retro games. Even then, most of those sort of games are enjoyed alone, online, via Steam.

Granted, tabletop games are enjoying a healthy amount of attention and conventions like PAX Prime and PAX East continue to break records for attendance, yearly. However, the massive attendance numbers at conventions only seems to provide evidence that geeks are starved for those sort of interactions on any sort of regular basis, so they jump at the chance to get a fix. It’s also evidence that it’s become socially acceptable to be “geeky,” but that’s an entirely different discussion for a different article.
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Even if geek culture has become mainstream, that would only magnify the need for geek enclaves. Yet, few seem to be sliding the laptop off their legs, rolling off the couch, and heading out to a local store with any sort of regularity. We lament the death of local communities and face to face interactions, but we’re not doing much, if anything, to revive them aside from attending the odd convention once or twice a year. If we’re really being honest, conventions foster small, local communities about as much as World of Warcraft fosters going outside.

Such comments may seem like an attack on technology and the Internet, but they aren’t. At least they aren’t meant to be. They are an attack on me, you, and everyone we know. We’ve become spoiled. Lazy. Complacent. We became more interested in what was happening “over there” than what was going on “right here.” And now we’re paying the price.

As empowering as technology is, we are losing something special in the disappearance of our local venues.

Of course, there is hope and it’s not Obi-wan. As the paradigm of technology shifts yet again with the ever-widening use of smart phones and tablets, we will cut the tether of our home computers and again venture out into the dark of night, breathing new life into local scenes of all kinds.
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Shops long closed will perhaps reopen. Yesterday’s comic book store owners, previously discouraged by waning clientele will give their D&D nights another shot. Even casual hobbyists will return to the basements, garages, and back rooms to begin new campaigns, to survive some Mansions of Madness, or an Arkham Horror, and to beat Halo on Legendary. At least one can only hope.

If local scenes really do die, if comic book stores stay few and far between, if hobby shops stay closed, and if conventions remain the only fertile ground for the passions of those of us who feel comfortable with the label “geek,” those who decry the condition of the industry, the loss of these cherished places, and the mistreatment of beloved content will not lament the demise of buildings and toys, but the death of a community.

Illustrations by Joshua ‘Scud’ Miller

The Button Mash has it’s own local community event in Vancouver Canada called Player Twosday at EXP Restaurant + Bar. If you’re in town come join us!