Hey, what about... on Flickr by Lex'n'Ger Ah....individualism. Freedom. Our own special snowflake world. Yep. We live in a world where we can celebrate personal freedom (albeit not beyond the boundaries of others'). We are all unique. That's a good thing.

Of course it is.

However, just like any other 'ism', religion and ideology, extremes can be rather unhealthy.

North America, and especially the United States, is a very Libertarian region. Personal freedom is seen as the pinnacle of importance. Anything that smacks of socialism and communalism is viewed as a threat to the ideals of that personal freedom. I mean, why the heck should I pay for my neighbour to slack off all day? Really. ;)

On the flipside, the extremes of socialism and communalism are also incredibly unrealistic. There ARE people who produce more and work harder to get ahead. There are people who take advantage of any system and who are enabled to do more of this by a totally cushy social system.

But there has to be a happy medium. Somewhere between the two where individuality and personal freedom is important, but so is community and watching out for one another.

This is what is at the core of the battles on various social networks -- the struggle between personal freedom and community health. A community too intent on consensus will please nobody, but a network bent on personal rewards won't survive very long either. The balance is delicate, but necessary and every community has a different sweet spot. Certainly the personal rewards type of communities like DIGG have been very popular with a particular set of people, mostly those that enjoy notoriety, gaming and power (my observation - many alpha geeks hanging around there. I've never found a place to fit in there). But these networks are also highly spammable, game-able and manipulate-able. DIGG has been a personal favourite of black hat SEO's and swarms for some time now.

And personal freedom maximized is awesome as long as everyone is pretty much equally healthy, wealthy and wise. It assumes we all start from the same starting line and that we have equal opportunities along the way. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Even in the fabled utopic online world.

Although I don't have any personal experience with online communities that are purely communal driven, I think of the recent film Hot Fuzz, where the townspeople's eerie mantra was, "It's for the greater good" as they snuffed out any sign of non-compliant behavior and made a grotesquely monolithic culture. Even the tightest of onine communities have a good share of dissent on decisions that account for the 80/20 'greater good'.

Up until this point, the pendulum is stuck in a position way too far to the personal freedom end of the swing these days. Maximizing personal freedom creates value for things like: rockstars, rapid growth for the sake of growth, numbers, competition, gaming, and the 20/80 phenomenon. It devalues things like: compromise, cooperation, sharing of ideas, trust, empathy and mentoring.

A couple examples of this have arisen for me over the last couple of days. Number one is around the response to Michael Moore's recent documentary Sicko. Love him or hate him (and it seems there is nobody in between, really), the number of stories he had submitted to him is quite compelling. I have a story of my own as someone who had some tests done that weren't covered by my $700/month healthcare (and they were pretty routine, really) that I'm still paying for. danah has her own story over here. It's not about 'those people'.

But I saw several messages from people I know like this one:

Twitter / Phil Leif: "Sicko" would be more intri...

Liberal guilt or not, if there ever comes a day that Phil or a family member gets sick and he finds out his great health plan ain't so great, it will be too late. And Phil is in every right to focus on what he's got and ignore the guilt of how others have been affected. It doesn't make him a bad person and he shouldn't feel guilty. But in a country where one would be taught to be concerned about the plight of one's neighbors, Phil would probably think differently. I don't know if it was the fact that I was raised in a small town where we all knew one another's business and had potlucks and such, but I feel sad to be part of a system where so many fall through the cracks.

And this isn't about healthcare at all, really, it's about community and how we view it. It's about where we let down our own personal boundaries and desire for maximized personal freedom to contribute to the health of one's community - physically, mentally, etc. It's about trust. And if one wants to still frame it in the personal, it's about empathy - imagining that anything can happen and you could be that person denied coverage or discriminated against or litigated into bankruptcy. Instead of celebrating the lone rockstars - those who make millions and put more $$ in their bank accounts - I'd like to see more of celebrating people who are contributing more to the community. Not money, but time and ideas. What I heart about Open Source is that personal freedom and expression has played a backseat for a long time to the freedom of ideas and the pursuit of common goals. I'm entirely elated that Open Source is quickly becoming a more publicly celebrated phenomenon (unfortunately, the media still likes to treat it as personal stories, but they will learn).

By no means do I think it is healthy to start a dichotomous war between individual and community freedoms - I really believe that there are delicate balances to be forged. However, it is about time for everyone to think about what type of community you'd want to live in. One that you can achieve personal greatness in or you can count on when the going gets tough?

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