America is facing a loneliness epidemic. So many of us wish that we had more community in our lives, but don’t know how to organically build it. We feel the pain of losing community as we inevitably leave home or graduate college, wondering, “Will I ever find a community like this again?”
So we check out meetups, attend public talks or sporting events, and go to our workplace’s happy hours. Yet this motley of activities can’t really replace that warm dorm community of college or loving home environment of our memories. What’s different, and can we ever get it back?
This isn’t everyone’s experience, of course. But whether it resonates with you or not, I’d like to offer something of an answer, at least to the first of those questions. And to the second, I hope that by understanding the different shapes that community forms in our lives, we can identify what we might be missing and where we need to look next.
In a solid community, members primarily gather and interact at designated times, often but not always at regular intervals. This is your Wednesday evening bible study, Friday night happy hour, Saturday pick-up soccer games. It could even be more frequent, like lunch breaks at work or dinners in your college dorm.
Solid communities exist within clear boundaries. Church will last for no more than 90 minutes, or if you’re Catholic, an hour, and everyone will immediately leave after it’s over. Most of the communication that takes place outside of these gatherings will be focused on the recent or upcoming gatherings, which are the focus of their existence.
Liquid communities, by contrast, fill all of that space in between their regular gatherings, if they even have them. The barrier to interacting with other members of the community is really low and frequently crossed without any advance planning. This is often easiest with people you live with, as they’re just a short walk or shout away. “Come check this out!”
In addition to college communities and the archetypal small town, the internet now affords many such communities. Whether it’s a Facebook group, subreddit, Snapchat Group or Discord server, many of us have found communities we can and do interact with at any time among those who share some common interest.
Unlike solid communities, which can pack neatly into a weekly schedule, it’s actually hard to juggle more than a couple robust liquid communities at the same time. Since they fill any space afforded to them, liquid communities tend to lay claim to the same time and mental states.
But for many of us, especially the extroverts, it’s even tougher to see any liquid communities we were involved with dry up, often because we move away. So we quickly seek it out, trying to recreate what we’ve lost, like a spurned lover immediately seeking a rebound relationship. And if we’re not discerning, these rebound communities might not actually be healthy for us, even if they aren’t the 8chans of the internet.
What good does this taxonomy afford? I think it can be helpful to recognize the different types of needs we each have. A parent of young children might be so filled with the liquid community of their own households to only be able to afford a few solid communities on top. On the other hand, the singles in those same communities might wish they were more liquid and often seek to find that same liquid community elsewhere.
Understanding this distinction can also help with coordination. I still remember this one newcomer’s gathering at my church a few years ago. One of the new guys explained that he had just moved to the area and while Sunday morning church and community group one evening a week were great, he had a lot more free time and would love to hang out and make friends with people in the church. One of my fellow volunteers said that he was feeling the same thing and invited him to hang out together.
How do you actually make steps to form liquid communities, though? You can’t just set a calendar reminder, because then it’s a solid community meeting at pre-defined times. Instead, the barrier to interacting needs to be lowered, and the members have to supply enough temperature (enthusiasm) and/or pressure (things you just have to share) to make it melt.
For instance, my church community group, seeking to become closer friends outside of the group itself, started a group text chain. We still don’t use it nearly frequently enough to be that sort of liquid community, but it’s a start. Or other friends I know who have chosen to move into a house together, to make it that much easier to spend time with each other.
Similarly, it can be especially painful to leave liquid communities. Without the same easy access to each other, we abrupty stop interacting. Even if we’re close enough friends that we’d love to stay in touch, this is because we haven’t built the same structures and patterns of interaction that we’d have needed if it was a solid community.
So if we indeed care about that relationship, we need to actively shape its transition into a solid community. This could mean setting reminders for ourselves to grab dinner with friends in the area who we no longer see on a regular basis, or calling friends who’ve moved away. Maybe we become pen pals, or visit regularly enough to stay in touch on those occasions.
I’ve previously highlighted David Brooks’ distinction between thin and thick communities, arguing that we should cherish those thick communities we’re part of. This is a different distinction; while it’s naturally easier for liquid communities to shape us given their consistent presence in our lives, solid communities can be just as thick or life-changing. Conversly, liquid communities can sometimes be shallow, soaking up all of our free time with dumb arguments without calling us to any higher ideal.
So instead of encouraging you to join liquid or solid communities, I’d invite you to take stock of the communities you’re currently involved in. Do you find yourself drowning in multiple competing liquid communities or thirsting for more? How can you contribute to shaping those communities for the better? Is the mix of communities you’re a part of shaping you into the type of person you want to be?