Archive for August 11th, 2004

Instant Community and Values

Wednesday, August 11th, 2004

In a slight departure from my rants about organizations and responsibility and harshness, I’m going to go off on a digression here for this post, one brought on by a thought I had while writing up my experience at Greg Maddux’s 300 wins. I was wondering why I cared. I mean, this multimillionaire did his thing playing a kid’s game. So what?

That leads, of course, to the larger question: Why do we care about sports? Well, okay, some people don’t, but those of us that do? It’s ridiculous to care about the exploits of guys playing a game that has no effect on my life. My theory is that following sports is a way of instantly becoming part of a community. When you follow a certain team, you go through ups and downs with the rest of that team’s fans. You commiserate when your team loses, you celebrate when it wins. You can strike up conversations with people you don’t know at all, using merely the shared commonality of rooting for that team. My sister and I did this at the Giants-Cubs game – the folks behind us were Cubs fans, so we were sharing tidbits of Cubs trivia, and experiences of rooting for the Cubs in years past. I don’t think I ever even learned their names. But we had a shared history via the medium of sports.

And I think that’s really the power of sports. It’s not about the athletes on the field; they’re merely an excuse. The real power is in the communal experience of the fans. We, as human beings, are evolved to be social creatures. Sports fanhood provides a way of binding us together into a social community. We don’t have to have anything in common besides our fanhood. It’s similar to the power that network television had until the advent of cable; when you sat down and watched the evening news, you knew that most of the nation was watching it with you. It was a shared experience that provided one of the binding threads of the nation.

I think that sports serves a similar function – when I come in on Monday morning, I can say to the other football fans, “Can you believe that catch that Brandon Lloyd made yesterday?! Holy cow!!” and we’ll be off talking about the game and other events of the weekend. It’s even better because being a fan of sports doesn’t involve the risk of rejection that joining most communities does. You can be a sports fan by declaring yourself one.

Speaking of instant communities, the other obvious one is joining a church. You immediately have people to do things with, because churches generally organize lots of social activities to help embed you into the community. It’s a marvelous piece of social engineering, because tying you into the social fabric of the church means that you can’t leave the church without breaking all of your social ties as well. And the thought of that is too much for most people to bear (again, we are social animals). I’m not saying this is done as a Machiavellian plot by individual pastors; it’s a consequence of the church being the center of existence for two millenia and having had lots of opportunities to refine its approach to getting and keeping members. But that’s another story.

One of the things that I don’t like about either of these communities (sports or churches) is that they seem too superficial to me. This comes back to a theory that a friend of mine proposed of “reality coefficients” (1) (yes, I couldn’t resist using a David Foster Wallace-style footnote). Our reality coefficients align in a small way via sports or a church, but it restricts interactions to a really shallow level. And for some people, that might be what they’re looking for. But I’m looking for more, because I’ve had it in the past, with a community of friends that I felt like I could talk to about almost everything. And I’m no longer willing to settle for anything less. Which may make me a snob. Anyway.

What was I talking about? Right, sports. Yeah.

Despite all that snootiness, I still love sports. I love playing them, I love watching them, I love the buzz in the crowd when you’re all rooting together for something. It’s a primitive impulse being part of a mob of people like that, and one that probably appeals to us all because it’s primitive. In our world of postmodern ironic world-weariness, something about the buzz as Barry Bonds steps into the batting box, as 40,000 people hold their breath together, breaks through our ennui and evokes images of a more primitive time, of gladiators and arenas. It’s an exciting feeling. The mob mentality rises to the surface and we lose ourselves in it.

Okay, now I’m heading off in a totally different direction. I’ll stop there and figure out which way I want to go later.

(1) Reality coefficients are essentially the value we place on various things in life. Some people rate following sports as being important, others don’t. Same for church. Or school. Or quantum hydrodynamics. Pretty obvious, so far. My friend’s insight was that when you don’t share the same set of reality coefficients as another person, the two of you essentially live in different worlds/realities. In my world, the Cubs losing in playoffs last year was brutal. Others were not even aware of the game even taking place. I can’t have a conversation with them about that game because it didn’t even show up in their world.

My friend extended the idea further, saying that we can only have conversations with others where our values overlap. This is where the instant communities come in. Because of the commonality of experience in being a fan of a certain team, I can commiserate with another fan of that team, regardless of whether our values line up in other areas, so long as the conversation remains restricted to discussing the team. If it wanders off into other areas, we may end up in violent disagreement.

Another consequence of the theory is that it explains “small world syndrome”, where it seems like everybody cool that you meet is friends of friends or knows somebody that you know. Why? Because we live in different realities depending on the values we place on certain things. Our closest friends and confidantes will naturally share the most values with us; we’ll be able to converse on the greatest variety of topics. Their friends will naturally share similar values as well. So it’s not surprising that we all know each other. There are other networks of friends out there who have completely different values that barely intersect our network at all. So the number of people who share our values, who are in our network of friends is a very small number compared to the total population. Hence small world syndrome.

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