I crave community. Not just in the online community, social media, Facebook group kinda way, but in the old-fashioned, meatspace, city-and-neighborhood way. When I go to a party and run into two different friends who turn out to know each other in some unrelated way, I get a rush from feeling the world circling tighter around me. When I go to a meetup or a conference and get to hang out with a bunch of colleague/friends (we really need a new word for that hybrid) and talk about the work we all do and love, I feel recharged by a sense that I’m part of a larger group of people who are working on something together. And when I have a great day at the office, it’s not because I wrote something great or learned something fascinating or got something done; it’s because I spent time with someone who made me feel like I’m part of a community at work, too.

Yet for all that I love community, I am deeply ambivalent about belonging to one. When I’m around Americans I cling to my Canadian passport; when I’m around Canadians I like to mention that I’m also American. When I’m in a mommies’ group I talk about my work and when I’m at a work event I talk about my kids. It’s no coincidence that I’m a women’s studies major who has landed in a field that ensures I spend most of my time around men; I’m a political scientist who is working in an art school; I’m a TV junkie but I surround myself with friends who eschew cable. I love community groups; what makes me uneasy is groupness.

I got to thinking about groupness while attending a recent conference at a relatively intimate retreat centre. The conference was a gathering of progressives, and one of the core themes of our conversation was the deleterious impact of groupness in our society. Groupness is how we solidify our individual identities; social psychology tells us that people who have multiple overlapping identities (i.e. all of us) typically identify with the group that provides them with a positive, socially valued group identity. In other words, as a white woman in nonprofit tech, I’ll identify as white rather than as female, and as a techie rather than a nonprofit person, because our society rewards being white and techie more than being female and in nonprofit work.

The problem, as that example suggests, is that we use our groupness to reinforce our identity by implicitly or explicitly separating ourselves from the people who aren’t part of the group. A great deal of progressive thought focuses on analyzing and addressing the dynamics and impact of the ways we separate ourselves from others: by race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion, et cetera. And the progressive gathering I attended took up that conversation, talking about the impact of groupness, and in particular other-ing, on a variety of contemporary social issues.

What happened, as that conversation unfolded, is something I’ve observed at lots of progressive and alternative gatherings over the years. Day 1: we establish some explicit rules and rituals around how to converse and engage (moments of silence, shoes off, phones off). Day 2: the group spawns some spontaneous practices and norms (de facto expectations for particular issue positions, finger-snapping instead of clapping, group jokes about recurring phrases). Day 3: the spontaneous practices of day 2 have solidified into informal rules with near-universal adoption, and defection occurs only silently rather than as an explicit challenge or critique (i.e. you don’t have to snap, but it feels weird to clap).

Day 3 is the day that somebody like me gets itchy. Day 3 is when I realize that I’m now enveloped by a group, and I’ve got to decide whether to belong or squeeze my way outside. Usually I squeeze. It’s not an intellectual decision…it’s more like a tempermental leaning, a deep aversion to orthodoxy that triggers a flight reaction whenever I find myself on the verge of absorption into some kind of formal, informal or even purely temporarily collective.

This time, when I got the itchies, I found myself wondering how the groupness and the urge to squeeze out had emerged so quickly. After all, we were all talking about groupness, problematizing the social phenomenon that separates self from other, and generally talking all the talk that would make you think orthodoxy would never set in. And yet it took less than 48 hours for us to land on the usual leftie grab-bag of finger-snapping, silence-making, feeling-talking and a whole host of other behaviours that would be hugely alienating to many newcomers to progressive culture.

There are a few ways you could look at the contrast between our talk about groupness “out there” in the real world, and our practice of creating groupness “in here” at the retreat centre. One is to tsk tsk and observe that as progressives, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard, and break this terrible habit of groupness and other-ing that got us into the whole modern pickle in the first place: the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Another perspective might defend the emergence of groupness among a collection of people who were actually remarkable heterogenous, and argue that the development of group rituals and boundaries is actually essential to the creation of solidaristic ties, and argue that groupness is fundamentally different and therefore acceptable in this particular context.

As ever, I land somewhere in between — you won’t catch me committing to one camp or the other. I do think that groupness among a bunch of finger-snapping lefties is fundamentally different from groupness among a bunch of gay-bashing righties. I do think that lefties still need to be a bit more self-aware about their groupness, and be conscious that in embracing collective rituals under the banner of solidarity and community-building, we can be othering people in our midst….including people like me, who get itchy once groupness emerges, but also including people whose reaction may have more to do with lack of familiarity or comfort with the various social practices of progressive culture.

But most of all, I think we need to be gentler with ourselves and our fellow citizens in criticizing groupness as it exists out there, in the big bad world. If the tendency toward groupness is so ubiquitous, and so urgent, that it emerges within 48 hours of sequestering a group of progressives, then maybe it’s just fundamental to human nature. Recognizing that human urge to clump could help us understand, relate to and even converse with the clumps that seem most mystifying (Tea Party members, right-to-lifers, Twilight fans) instead of jumping straight to our critique of whatever banded them together. Once we stop rejecting the need for groupness as intrinsically bad, we can begin to explore the constructive ways that the need for groupness can be satisfied.

And it seems that satisfying the need for groupness is one of the things the Internet does incredibly well. One of my favourite, strangely touching moments online was when I got into a chat with a guy in Second Life who had met his true love there. The guy I was talking to was dressed up as a wolf…which it turns out is something he also enjoys offline. The guy he fell in love with was a fellow computer nerd and um, mascot aficionado (what the kidz call “furries”). I for one LOVE the fact that lonely, nerdy, furry gay guys can now find each other online, because the Internet can actually offer groups and meeting places specifically for lonely, nerdy, furry gay guys. To me, the happiness of these guys represents a major triumph for the human race.

Because each of us has some way in which we’re the lonely, nerdy, furry gay guy: you know, the extreme outlier who feels like he’s just got to be the Only Person Like This In The Entire World….until he finds a whole Facebook group, Twitter list, Second Life gathering or e-mail list full of soul-mates. In the offline world, we’d be the Only Person forever, because while the offline world does a not-bad job of making groupness available on the basis of whichever identities are most common (or most dominant) in the location where you presently reside, in practice, that means that positive ascriptive identity (groupness that makes you feel good about who you are because you’re part of a socially valued dominant group) is available only to a limited number of people.

The online world, in comparison, makes groupness available on the basis of just about any identity or interest you can think of. If you’re skeptical, then I challenge you to think of whatever identity you can possibly imagine, and then Google it: I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll find a blog or a Facebook group or a something dedicated to that group identity. (If you prove me wrong, I’ll offer you membership in the coveted group of People Who Have Proven Me Wrong. I’m afraid it’s not that small a group.)

It might seem ironic that I’m championing the Internet as an outlet for groupness when I began by admitting my unease with groupness of all sorts. I mean, if I hate groups so much, why do I spend so much damn time in a medium that is all about grouping, clumping, and re-grouping?

The answer lies in my point about how the Internet can accommodate just about any group you can imagine — including identities like mine, as an avowed non-grouper. Unlike face-to-face groups, which enforce their boundaries with varying degrees of aggression (ranging from social discomfort with noncomformity, to outright violence) online groups have very elastic membership. You can join a Facebook group and trade updates with your friends every hour, or you can “belong” to the community of a blog that you read voraciously but comment on only occasionally.

And your experience of groupness will be almost perfectly proportional to your investment in and engagement with the group. If you want a strong sense of membership in a particular collective identity that you find online, you can participate a lot and solidify your membership in both your own eyes and others’. If you get itchy when you feel too grouped-in, you can contribute occasionally but still have access to (mostly) the same people and conversations that are accessible to the most engaged group members.

Of all the ways we divide and subdivide ourselves and our fellow human beings, that need for groupness may be one of the most profound. You just have to watch the way people respond to, engage with and talk about social media to see it: from passionate commitment to cautious delight or outright skepticism, people are playing out their feelings about groupness and their definitions of what a group is and is not (“it’s not a real community if it’s online”; “it’s a group if people feel like it’s a group”; “it’s not a real group if anyone can join”). I’m thankful that the Internet can accommodate that incredible range of needs and preferences, and in particular, for re-engaging us in a critical conversation about groupness and community itself.