Maybe it’s strange that art historical criticism and the internet would lead me to write about community, so forgive me: I’ve been stuck inside for more hours than I care to think about, and ideas are coalescing in my brain out of sheer desperation.
While sitting inside this past Monday, I read — a lot. I did my art history reading and then spent a great deal of time trawling the internet. By which I mean, I read and reread Facebook posts about the hurricane and eagerly responded to whatever emails popped into my inbox.
Both the emails and the Facebook posts moved me, unexpectedly. Every email ended with an exhortation to stay safe, warm and dry; each Facebook post sent wishes of patience and strength in the face of the storm. For a day and a half, we were united — online — in the face of a threat that none of us could predict or control.
This morning, I woke up to a series of phone calls, texts and emails from friends and family all demanding to know if I was okay. Everyone wanted to be reassured that I had water (blessedly) and electricity (hallelujah) and was uninjured (aside from stiffness associated with yoga inflicted on me by my fit housemate, totally fine).
I was immensely grateful for these moments of communication: happy to be reminded that I mattered to people, delighted to have an opportunity to catch up with people I love but don’t speak to enough. The hurricane very quickly became a pretext to have other conversations about what’s happening in our lives. I rapidly forgot about Sandy and felt, instead, deep gratitude.
My art history reading about how internet technology has changed the way we experience images and texts — and my gratitude about the calls, emails and texts from friends and family — then did a jig in my tired brain and produced a thought.
Even ten years ago, an experience like Sandy would have been radically different. Fewer people had cell phones; most of the world wasn’t on Facebook; and the idea of being able to access people virtually any time or anywhere via email and texting was impossible except for the few who had early smart phones. This hurricane, and the previous few, were amongst the first natural disasters we could experience in real time without losing touch with the outside world or the people who mattered.
Technology now allows us to be a community, not just a group of people stuck in our own rooms. During the hurricane, we were no longer just a virtual community of people playing Farmville or sharing cool videos: We were a real community of people who wanted to protect and support each other. Facebook today continues to be full of posts of people offering food, shelter, showers and rides to their friends and acquaintances up and down the east coast. And let’s not forget the sheer number of emails we received from Yale about Sandy: We were a campus community, ready to take care of each other. This feeling of closeness was facilitated and informed by technology, though the community exists independent of the technology.
While I sometimes bemoan the ways in which technology limits our ability to really talk to each other, I find myself today rethinking that proposition. Technology is first and foremost a tool and, I would argue after the last few days, a profoundly important one in building community and reaching across distances, whether they are only a few walls or entire continents.
Though I was grateful for the time on my own that Sandy gave me — time I so rarely have at Yale — I am more grateful to know that there is a collective of people looking out for each other and me, on- and off-line. Because of them, the hurricane seemed less fearsome; because of technology, I am less afraid of future storms.
Zoe Mercer-Golden is a senior in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .