🏆 I provide private lessons on Emacs, Linux, and Life in general: https://protesilaos.com/coach/. Lessons continue throughout the year.

Anonymity and community

The following is an excerpt from my journal.

One cannot be anonymous in a local community. To be collocated at peace with others requires mutual openness, which entails eponymity. People know who you are, where you live, and, at the very least, have a good sense of what you are doing. This is very much unlike online communities, where members can be anonymous and the knowledge they disclose about themselves is mostly unverifiable. For a local community, anonymity is treated with suspicion, perhaps even fear: “what is this indubitably shady person up to?” is a thought that will naturally occur.

Eponymity engenders a sense of trust as the person is a known quantity and their actions are traceable. Each member’s identity is common knowledge. It thus forms part of the community’s shared narratives and collective notion of selfhood. Narratives are about who is who, who does what, what happens where, and so on. They concern the people in the place, drawing linkages between the two magnitudes of community and locality.

Much like individuals, collectives maintain a sense of identity, of where their boundaries are, be they physical or notional. Online communities, for example, are centred around interests and identify with them accordingly. It is expected, for instance, that members of the Emacs community come together to partake in their shared enthusiasm for Emacs but not necessarily for agriculture: they can distinguish themselves as separate from the farming aficionados, and vice versa. Distinctions of this sort have no malintent. They are not about excluding people or creating animosity. Rather, they derive from the basic capacity of humans to discern patterns, recognising where something starts and where it ends on the cosmic continuum. Local communities do have some shared interests, which typically are the activities peculiar to the region, such as wine-making, though they additionally develop their identity on the basis of their locus and its enduring narratives.

To remain private in a local community is to forever be an alien to it. You will never gain anyone’s trust and good will as your story will be unknown, not integrating into the shared narrative. Eponymity is the price to pay for membership. The challenge, then, is how to live peacefully with others, contribute to the commons, and still preserve a sense of a private sphere. This for me is especially difficult, as my introverted nature predisposes me to be solitary and to not seek company. Yet I know that solitude will lead to my marginalisation, which is unsafe for me long-term and potentially unsettling for others in my midst.

I have found that I can enjoy people’s trust with my calm demeanour and eagerness to help. I do not need to join their festivals nor attend church to pretend I am the same as them. No! It suffices to keep the windows open so that others can take a peek.

The other day I was passing through the place of a distant neighbour. My hut is outside the village, so calling this person a “neighbour” is already stretching the meaning of the word. At any rate, I was invited for a coffee. Even though I would rather not be there, I did it for the greater good. I find small talk incredibly dull, but I try to make it interesting.

Sharing a coffee with a local is not about the drink per se. It is a ritual of sorts. A rite of passage from stranger to acquaintance. The person got to know me better. I can expect that through the power of gossip this knowledge is already spreading among others and each such encounter will reverberate across the community. To this end, I am not surprised when someone I do not know greets me with “you live down the river, right?” They know. And I have learnt that it is all about keeping the windows open.

Being a member of the community means that you have the responsibility to contribute to the common good. At minimum, you must conduct yourself with integrity and not violate the prevailing norms. Rules matter greatly, regardless of what we may think of them. They cannot be altered unilaterally and must thus be taken as immutable in scenaria where only a single agent opposes them. Norms are still human in origin, hence mutable. That they may appear sacrosanct is due to their shared presence and affirmation in the minds of the community’s members, who will act in a way that enforces the substantive parts of the rule. Norms form the basis of the community’s identity. To question them is to confront the community as such, which will practically result in the marginalisation of the offender.

The benefit of belonging to a community is that you get support from volunteers who are eager to help without asking for anything in return. Each member of the community has a duty to do some public service for the continued wellness of the commons. Concretely, I was at home the other day and was working on the computer. A villager drove by, parked the car in front of the hut, came to my room and told me that they brought some construction materials that I could use to seal off my walls for the coming winter. I never asked for any of this and did not tell this person about my needs (I must indeed reinforce the construction and make all sorts of improvements, which is apparent from the outside). Yet it happened and I am thankful to have received this kind of help.

Exchanges of this sort are not transactional. I do not have to give anything back to that person. Instead, I must learn from their example. When I have the chance, I too will offer something to someone who may be in need of it. Perhaps I can train their dog, fix their computer, provide a helping hand in some construction work… It does not matter what it is. The importance is to not be a strictly private person in a milieu where anonymity is perceived as a threat. Participate however you can, even a little bit, and be relaxed about it.

My introverted self feels uneasy at the thought of some random fellow villager walking in to my private space. Not just for locals I have never met, but even for individuals I know well. Though in my capacity as a rational agent I understand this is part of the deal of joining a local community and of benefiting from the togetherness involved.