What We Can Learn From the Amish About Online Communities

My Amish Roots

When my great-great-grandmother’s first husband (Samuel Lapp) died in his mid-20s from a failed appendectomy performed on his kitchen table, his best friend was so ill he couldn’t attend the funeral. So on the day of the funeral, they drove the horse and wagon containing the coffin to the sick friend’s house, parked the wagon outside his window, and leaned the coffin over so that he could pay his last respects.

When my great-great-grandfather Amos King’s first wife died, and he couldn’t simultaneously take care of the children and work his farm, a cousin took in his youngest child until Amos remarried three years later.

When a distant Amish cousin of mine was rendered unresponsive after being hit by a car, the community supported the family and held a sale. They raised over $200,000, and his medical expenses were covered.

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We talk a lot about community and social media. You can’t throw a dead cat without hitting another blog post questioning the merits of the cyber-community. Is it real community if you never meet someone “in real life”? Everyone hates Facebook. Everyone loves Facebook. Everyone hates Twitter. Everyone loves Twitter. No one knows what to do with Google+.

As I wrote this book about my Amish roots, I was impacted over and over by the strength of their community. Their bonds were tested by circumstances I can only imagine: Atlantic crossings that took weeks; a 20% mortality rate among children; war and the rumor of war constantly surrounding them.

I started to wonder: what makes a strong community?

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Last week a blogger that I follow, Knox McCoy, ran a simple blog post about a family he had heard of. Not a family he knew, just a couple and a child that had somehow come on to his radar. Their child had received a difficult diagnosis. They needed some money to cover medical costs.

So he held a small contest – donate $5 for a chance to win a pair of TOMS. For every $5 you donate, you get an entry. After one week, he had raised over $5,000.

This is community: a sense of commonality, an environment of compassion, and a desire to help and allow others to help you.

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I’m realizing that those who complain about the lack of community on Facebook, Twitter and the like have a point. If social media devolves into simply a replacement for the 30-second television or radio ads we no longer watch and listen to, then it is not a community worth fostering. Community is never a one-way street.

But then I see folks like Knox, getting to know people, helping people, connecting people, and I think, “That’s what community is all about.”

It’s actually the same type of community my ancestors had, long before television or radio or Kickstarter. The only difference is that people are united by interest and not geography.

Which is stronger? I don’t know. What do you think?

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